African peace support operations (PSOs) are gaining increasing attention for a variety of reasons. In many cases, they are depicted as showcasing the limited capacity and resources of the African Union (AU) in planning, deploying, and managing complex PSOs. In others, they are associated with their relatively limited impact in bringing peace to the respective environments in which they are deployed. On a more abstract level, they are presented as the embodiment of a burgeoning, putative African agency in the area of peace and security that has only crystallized since the AU established its African Peace and Security Architecture, commonly known as APSA.

Perhaps a less explored dimension is the contribution of African PSOs to redefining the relations of the United Nations (UN) with regional organizations (ROs) globally. The UN’s role in matters related to international peace and security is self-evident, whether it takes the form of intervening in various crises or simply existing as a primary and globally mandated entity with its authority duly enshrined in its charter. Much less evident, or even less tangible, is the relationship between the UN and ROs.

An important provision of the UN charter, Chapter VIII defined the UN’s relationship with regional arrangements with respect to international peace and security. Notwithstanding the charter’s provisions on the legal rationale for regional action in resolving crises, the UN made little or no use of such arrangements for most of the Cold War. Now, in an apparent turnaround, the engagement of regional arrangements in the area of peacekeeping—either acting alone or alongside UN operations—has become the norm rather than the exception.1United Nations Security Council, Partnering for Peace: Moving towards Partnership Peacekeeping, S/2015/229, April 1, 2015,

Against this background, this brief commentary argues that African PSOs deployed by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the AU, and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), with all their limitations, contribute a more tangible and practical meaning to the charter’s provision for the UN’s cooperation with ROs.

African PSOs: Contribution to Shaping the UN’s Relations with Regional Organizations

The African continent has been ground zero for producing and testing a number of new international norms, as well as other operational concepts. Sovereignty as responsibility, the responsibility to protect, and the principle of non-indifference as enshrined in the AU Constitutive Act are some of the most notable norms that have grown out of African experiences and are shaping crisis management on the continent. On the operational level, concepts within the UN peacekeeping lexicon, such as the Katanga Rule (peacekeepers using force in self-defense and to help missions fulfill their tasks) or the Mogadishu line (peacekeepers avoiding “mission creep”), were both influenced by African experience.2Adekeye Adebajo, UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2011).

Moreover, the African experience has helped accentuate the guiding principles of the UN–RO relationship, some of which have been highlighted by successive AU and UN reports. The primacy of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), complementarity, division of labor, subsidiarity, and consultative decision making and common strategy are some of the normative dimensions underscoring the sharing of responsibilities between the UN and ROs. Nevertheless, these normative dimensions got their practical significations, albeit imperfectly and in an ad hoc manner, in the context of African PSOs.

This point is illustrated by the principle of division of labor. African PSOs in Burundi (2004), Sudan (2004–7), Mali (2012), and Somalia (2007–now) all featured a very broad pattern of division of labor between African ROs and the UN. As part of it, African ROs provided troops and the UN offered political legitimation, financial and logistical support, and technical expertise. As yet another facet of the existing division of labor, the UN and African ROs also shared responsibilities, with one taking the lead on the political front and the other assuming peacekeeping tasks when dealing with some of the complex crises in Africa. The cases of Somalia and Mali are important examples of the two organizations’ playing these interchanging roles respectively. To say the least, this emerging division of labor was underpinned by recognition of the comparative advantages of the respective organizations and was meant to ensure complementarity of their actions.

As the UN interacted with African ROs in the context of some of these PSOs, various forms of collaborative mechanisms were also forged, with the attendant consequence of redefining the institutional and operational dimensions of UN–RO relations. The Somalia case showcased multiple forms of cooperation with the UN, including the use of assessed contributions to finance logistical support for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). In addition, “jointness” (that is, UN planners working side by side with their AU counterparts) buttressed the AU’s capacity to plan and manage its PSO in Somalia and later in Mali.

Besides their operational relevance, such forms of joint undertakings helped in building the technical capabilities of the AU’s experts and planners and provided new and better models of capacity building. The cases of Burundi, the Central African Republic, and Mali featured the transition of regional PSOs into UN peacekeeping missions. As missions were “re-hatted” from the AU to the UN in the various cases, important lessons were drawn for consolidating the broader UN–RO interaction, with potential future applications.


Against a backdrop of a dynamic and changing peace and security environment, the UN’s interaction with ROs is being redefined. Given the security realities of the continent, Africa is at the forefront of this historical dynamism, and African PSOs are instrumental in shaping the existing contours of the UN–RO relationship. Ongoing efforts of reshaping and consolidating the global–regional security architecture need to be further consolidated through in-depth and practical analyses of African PSOs to advance relevant policy formulations.

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  • 1
    United Nations Security Council, Partnering for Peace: Moving towards Partnership Peacekeeping, S/2015/229, April 1, 2015,
  • 2
    Adekeye Adebajo, UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2011).