The subsidiarity principle and UN-AU-RECs relations in the field of peace operations

By Timo Smit, Searcher, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Sweden

Introduction and context

The spectacular increase in the number of personnel deployed in peace operations on the African continent is arguably one of the most significant long-term trends in 21st century international conflict management.[1] In most global regions the number of personnel in peace operations has remained stable—at relatively modest levels—or been in decline for most parts of the past decade. At the same time, the number of personnel in peace operations in African countries has, on average, nearly doubled every five years since the turn of the millennium—from about 15 000 personnel in 10 peace operations in 2000, to approximately 120 000 in 28 operations in 2015.[2] Although this number decreased by 7.5 per cent in 2016—the first decrease in more than 10 years—African countries continued to host almost 75 per cent of all personnel deployed in peace operations worldwide, and 6 of the 8 operations with a strength exceeding 10 000 personnel.[3]

Although the majority of peace operations in Africa are led by the United Nations, the African Union (AU), the various Regional Economic Communities (RECs)/Regional Mechanisms (RMs),[4] and African member states are playing an increasingly important role in the maintenance of peace and security in Africa. This is reflected by the number of African-led peace operations that have been conducted—such as the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the African-led International Support Missions to Mali (AFISMA) and the Central African Republic (MISCA), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Missions in Guinea-Bissau (ECOMIB) and the Gambia (ECOMIG)—but also by the fact that African countries contribute the lion share of military and police personnel to UN peace operations that are active on the continent.[5]

The Subsidiarity principle and UN-AU-RECs/RMs relations

In the context of peace and security, the subsidiarity principle refers to the delegation of responsibilities in the areas of conflict prevention, management, and resolution to the “lowest level on which an adequate result can be achieved”.[6] Chapter VIII of the UN Charter identified “regional arrangements or agencies” as actors that may assume these responsibilities, which may be delegated to them by the UN Security Council—the highest global authority responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security—when and where appropriate.[7] In the African context, the AU is essentially positioned in-between the UN and the sub-regional RECs/RMs, even though the UN Charter does not distinguish between regional organizations. This has been one source of vagueness and varying interpretations of the hierarchical chain between the UN on the one hand, and the AU and the RECs/RMs on the other. However, recent experiences—in particular the authorization of AFISMA in 2012—seem to indicate that the UN Security Council has established a practice of not authorizing peace operations by RECs/RMs in absence of the consent or authorization by the AU Peace and Security Council.[8]

SIPRI research on the future of peace operations in Africa—based on extensive consultation and dialogue with and among African and non-African stakeholders—has found that while there is broad support for the concept of subsidiarity in principle, opinions and understandings of what it means in practice continue to vary. As a result of this ambiguity, interpretations of subsidiarity with regards to the relations between the UN, AU, and the RECs/RMs can moreover focus on different aspects. Whereas some focus on the practical implementation of the principle, other stress its importance with regards to decision-making process or outcomes.[9]

During the consultations and dialogues in all sub-regions of Africa—which included participation from representatives from governments, multilateral organizations (including the AU and various RECs), academia, think tanks, and civil society—it was suggested on multiple occasions that there is a need to further clarify Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, as to enhance common understanding of the level at which the mandates of regional peace operations should be defined. Otherwise, several participants argued, the relations between the REC/RMs and the AU, and between African organizations and the UN in general, would remain vulnerable to deficient coordination, misunderstanding, and tension and mutual mistrust. To illustrate these points, they regularly referred to inter-organizational tension that became apparent in 2013 from the failed attempt by ECOWAS to deploy an operation to Mali independently, and during the transition of AFISMA into the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).[10] However, as De Coning et al. have argued, the comparatively smooth two-step sequenced transition from peace operations led by a REC, the AU, and the UN in the Central African Republic only one year later demonstrated that important lessons have been learned at all three levels.[11]

Participants from all African sub-regions argued that, ideally, peace operations should be decentralized and that the initiative to prevent, manage, and resolve crises should be reserved for the relevant actors at the sub-regional level. At the one hand, there was a general feeling that the African REC/RMs should be strengthened and empowered further, and that in case of a crisis the AU and the UN should in the first place adopt a supportive role and take over only if and when the most proximate REC/RM is or has become overstretched and therefore not able to sustain its deployment. On the other hand, it was also acknowledged that the primacy of the UN Security Council remains the supreme authority responsible for the maintenance of global peace and security.[12] In this respect, the swift deployment of ECOMIG to the Gambia in January 2017—which was preceded by coercive diplomacy by both the AU and ECOWAS, and authorized by both the AU Peace and Security Council as well as the UN Security Council—was a promising example of how balanced and collective application of the subsidiarity principle by the UN, the AU, and a REC can enable effective conflict prevention.[13]


[1] Van der Lijn, J., Smit, T., and Höghammar, T. ’Peace Operations and Conflict Management’ in SIPRI Yearbook 2016 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). See also, SIPRI Multilateral Peace Operations Database, <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Smit, T., ‘Trends in Multilateral Peace Operations—new SIPRI data’, SIPRI Commentary, May 2017,


[4] The AU recognizes the following 8 RECs: the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA); the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD); the East African Community (EAC); the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS); ECOWAS; the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); and the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—and the following 2 RMs: the Eastern Africa Standby Force Coordination Mechanism (EASFCOM); and the North African Regional Capability (NARC). African Union, ‘Regional Economic Communities (RECs), <>.

[5] Beyond the scope of peace operations, African countries have also stepped-up their efforts in multinational efforts to combat terrorism, most notably through the deployment of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram, and the recent establishment of the Joint Force of the Group of Five Sahel (JF-G5S).

[6] Ndiaye, M., ‘The relationship between the AU and the RECs/RMs in relation to peace and security in Africa: subsidiarity and inevitable common destiny’, in De Coning, C., Gelot, L., and Karslrud, J., eds., The Future of African Peace Operations: From Janjaweed to Boko Haram (Zed Books, 2016), p. 53.

[7] Charter of the United Nations, Chapter VIII, para. 52-54.

[8] De Coning, C., Gelot, L., and Karslrud, J., ‘Strategic options for the future of African peace operations 2015-2025’, NUPI Report no. 1, 2015,


[9] Avezov, X., Van der Lijn, J., and Smit, T., African Directions: Towards an Equitable Partnership in Peace Operations, SIPRI report, Feb. 2017, <>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] De Coning, Gelot, and Karslrud, ‘Strategic options’, p. 16.

[12] Avezov, Van der Lijn, and Smit, African Directions.

[13] Williams, P. D., ‘A New African Model of Coercion? Assessing the ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia’, IPI Global Observatory, 16 Mar. 2017, <>.

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Timo Smit is a Researcher with the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme. He re-joined SIPRI in December 2014, having previously worked for the institute as an Intern and Research Assistant after graduating from Uppsala University. Timo is currently in charge of maintaining SIPRI’s database on multilateral peace operations (including data-collection), and conducts research on trends in peacekeeping.


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