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Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa
Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Group photograph of the heads of states and Government at the 48th Ordinary Session of the Ecowas Authority of Heads of State and Government in Abuja, 16th December 2015. AFP PHOTO/NurPhoto
Report 234 / Africa

Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has a formidable record in its efforts to promote peace in a particularly turbulent region. Still, reform is essential to give the organisation new impetus, and is ever more urgent as insecurity worsens throughout the Sahel and Lake Chad regions.

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Executive Summary

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), now in its 41st year, has a formidable record, both in its efforts to enhance regional economic integration, its initial mandate, and to promote peace in a particularly turbulent region. Still, the organisation has demonstrated shortcomings requiring significant institutional change. Reform is essential to give the organisation new impetus, and is ever more urgent as insecurity worsens throughout the Sahel and Lake Chad regions – crisis zones extending beyond ECOWAS’s geographic area and where it has limited impact and influence.

Comprising fifteen states of great political, linguistic and economic diversity and spanning a vast geographic area from the Atlantic coast to the Sahara desert, ECOWAS has been the most sought-after African regional economic body in the field of peace and security in the past 25 years. The organisation, itself composed of fragile states, has been forced to put out fires within its own member states. 

The ECOWAS region has experienced over forty coups since the independence era and seen some of its leaders trying to keep their grip on power at any cost, or establish political dynasties. The body has also been confronted with more complex crises in the form of identity-based armed rebellion, as in Côte d’Ivoire, or jihadist threats, most recently in Mali. Since the 1990s, through the authority of its Heads of State and Government, ECOWAS has reacted to these crises systematically. It has yielded incontestable political and diplomatic results, but its military record is more mixed. 

ECOWAS’s interventions in Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso have highlighted the organisation’s strengths, but also its limits. It has neglected several of its key objectives, including strengthening the political and security institutions of member states, reassessing all dimensions of its Standby Force and enhancing regional cooperation on transnational security threats. Such threats pose a challenge to established crisis prevention or resolution mechanisms, and cannot be overcome by traditional mediation tactics and the deployment of military missions.

The organisation has developed a number of strategy documents and action plans in recent years to correct its shortcomings, but must implement them fully to address myriad threats. These include the trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans; the proliferation of groups linked to transnational terrorist organisations; and the major regional challenges of poverty, unemployment and significant population growth. In addition, ECOWAS needs to undertake significant internal reorganisation, modernise its human resources management and develop a results-based culture. The new president of the ECOWAS Commission, Marcel Alain de Souza, should make it a priority as pledged in his inaugural speech on 8 April 2016. Nigeria, which through its economic and demographic dominance wields unmatched influence in West Africa, must also play a leading role in implementing these reforms. 

This report, the third and final in a series analysing the regional dimension of insecurity in Africa and collective and individual state responses, presents ECOWAS’s current institutional apparatus in the field of peace and security, and analyses its responses and deficiencies through three case studies: Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso. It is part of a broader reflection on the changing nature of conflict and growing transnational threats, problems requiring novel solutions which regional bodies are well placed to find. This report considers what institutional reforms need to be undertaken to improve ECOWAS’s collective action in the face of formidable challenges to peace and security in West Africa.

Recommendations

To strengthen ECOWAS’s institutions in the field of peace and security

To ECOWAS’s Authority of Heads of State and Government:

  1. Reaffirm the essential and irreversible nature of the implementation of the institutional reform proposed in 2013 that aimed to strengthen the organisation’s capacity in the field of peace, security, stability and social and economic development.
     
  2. Create a working group tasked with monitoring the implementation of this reform process, including heads of state and government, or, alternatively, high-level political figures, representative of the political, cultural and linguistic diversity of ECOWAS.

To the president of Nigeria:

  1. View the restoration of Nigerian diplomacy and its influence throughout Africa as a priority for the federal government, and make the revitalisation of ECOWAS a central pillar of this renewed diplomatic role.
     
  2. Strengthen ECOWAS’s capacity by supplying additional financial resources to peacekeeping or peace-enforcing missions.

To the president of the ECOWAS Commission:

  1. Take immediate action to improve the efficiency of departments, by addressing dysfunctions within human resources management, administration and finance, and blockages or delays in the implementation of decisions which result from the concentration of power within the commission presidency.

To improve ECOWAS’s efficiency in attaining its objectives for peace and security

To the ECOWAS Commission:

  1. Accompany member states in the reform of their political practices to strengthen their legitimacy and effectiveness, specifically in the areas of good governance and in strengthening their judiciaries in line with ECOWAS protocols, specifically by establishing ECOWAS permanent representation offices in every member state.
     
  2. Strengthen the capacity of member states to face collectively transnational threats by:
    1. creating an ECOWAS centre for the fight against organised crime that would integrate different action plans against transnational criminal activity, including terrorism, drug, human and arms trafficking and maritime piracy;
       
    2. strengthening communication between Abuja, the permanent representation offices and member states;
       
    3. encouraging them to develop greater knowledge of political and security dynamics in neighbouring regions, specifically North and Central Africa, and ensuring regional collaboration occurs at political, technical and operational levels, and engages all actors, including the judicial system;
       
    4. strengthening significantly ECOWAS’s expertise on other regional economic communities in Africa and throughout the world, and inviting other regional economic communities in Africa and the African Union (AU) to define a frame­work of coordination and collaboration on issues of terrorism, trafficking, maritime security, money laundering, infiltration and destabilisation of states by criminal networks.
       
  3. Implement the recommendations of ECOWAS’s self-assessment conducted in 2013 following the Mali crisis, specifically those concerning operationalising the mediation facilitation division and re-examining all dimensions of the ECOWAS Stand­by Force (doctrine, operational procedures, logistical strategies and financing).

To West African civil society organisations:

  1. Support publicly the recommendations contained in the institutional reform project proposed in 2013, and implement an ad hoc structure for West African civil society to independently monitor its implementation.

To AU member states and to the chairperson of the AU Commission:

  1. Clarify the principles of subsidiarity, comparative advantage and responsibility sharing to quell tensions between the AU and ECOWAS during major crises in West Africa and its neighbours.
     
  2. Continue to reflect on the doctrine, format and configuration of the African Stand­by Force with a view to better adapting the model to current threats and the future of peace and security on the continent, drawing lessons from challenges encountered by ECOWAS.

To ECOWAS’s international partners:

  1. Support ECOWAS’s institutional reform without interfering in the process, and continue technical and financial assistance projects while ensuring they do not reduce incentives for reform.

Dakar/Brussels, 14 April 2016

Op-Ed / Global

Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking

Originally published in World Politics Review

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died this week.  In this piece, originally published in World Politics Review in February, our UN Director assesses his legacy.

When Javier Pérez de Cuéllar turned 100 in January, his current successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, sent a congratulatory message stating that “I have often reflected on your example and experience for inspiration and guidance.” This sounds like a standard diplomatic pleasantry, but there may have been a more to it than that.

As UN chief from 1982 to 1991, Pérez de Cuéllar, a former Peruvian diplomat, was intimately involved in ending Cold War conflicts from Afghanistan to Central America. Guterres, since his appointment in 2017, has warned that the U.S., China and Russia risk starting a “new Cold War” if they do not rein in their current tensions. Senior UN officials, who have spent recent decades focusing on ending violence in the developing world, wonder if and how the international organization can work in a new era of great-power competition.

This February, Guterres warned that a “wind of madness is sweeping the globe” as governments fuel conflict and ignore climate change. “Security Council resolutions,” he added, “are being disrespected even before the ink is dry.” Perhaps unintentionally, he echoed Pérez de Cuéllar, who told the UN General Assembly in 1982—when the Cold War was still very much a reality—that “we are perilously near to a new international anarchy” in which Security Council resolutions were “increasingly defied or ignored by those who feel strong enough to do so.”

Most secretaries-general have lamented the state of the world in similar terms at one time or another. But Pérez de Cuéllar remains an interesting case study in UN leadership because, rather than simply complain about the state of the world, he made a real contribution to resolving crises involving its biggest powers, earning their respect along the way. His efforts included backchannel diplomacy with Russia and China over Afghanistan and Cambodia, and a drawn-out but ultimately successful effort to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on ending the Iran-Iraq War. His tenure culminated with successful UN mediation in the Cold War proxy conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Pérez de Cuéllar was even able to engage directly in mediating disputes involving the permanent Security Council members, something that had stymied his immediate predecessors, U Thant and Kurt Waldheim. Thant had, for example, alienated Washington by trying to play a diplomatic role in Vietnam. In his first year in office, Pérez de Cuéllar attempted to broker a deal between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, after Buenos Aires captured the disputed archipelago. While that outreach failed, Christopher Mallaby, a British diplomat involved in the talks, recalls that the British government was impressed by the “able and impressive” secretary-general.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises.

In 1986, he arbitrated talks between France and New Zealand after French intelligence operatives sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been monitoring a French nuclear test in the Pacific, while it was moored in Auckland. The French government ultimately agreed to pay New Zealand $7 million in reparations. It is hard to imagine any of the permanent Security Council members acceding to such arbitration now.

Why was Pérez de Cuéllar able to pull off such diplomatic feats? In part, he was lucky. Contrary to his bleak assessment in 1982, rapprochement between the Western and Soviet blocs created more space for the UN to help resolve conflicts that all sides wanted to end.

But as Alvaro de Soto, a close adviser to Pérez de Cuéllar, noted in a recent chapter on his former boss in a history of successive secretaries-general and the Security Council, he also brought important character traits to Turtle Bay. De Soto highlights Pérez de Cuéllar’s absolute commitment to impartiality in dealing with the U.S., Soviet Union and other powers, and his extreme discretion in quietly handling problems like Afghanistan. He also knew when to pick his battles. Rather than throw himself into addressing every conflict at once, he tended to step in only after other diplomatic actors had exhausted themselves. In the case of Central America, for example, he waited for regional diplomacy to lose steam before pushing UN mediation.

Overall, de Soto notes, Pérez de Cuéllar handled Cold War crises “piecemeal” instead of trying to resolve the core differences between Washington and Moscow, “relying on the judicious choice of individual conflicts that might lend themselves to practical solutions… in the expectation that they would lead in the long term to the return of some degree of largely absent cooperation.”

What guidance and inspiration might Guterres and his team take from these lessons today? It is important, of course, not to overstate current similarities or parallels to the late Cold War. Pérez de Cuéllar worked in the shadow of a nuclear standoff, but had the good fortune to cooperate with global powers that were in the process of building bridges and wanted to settle their differences—although, as de Soto notes, the trajectory of this process was hardly clear at the time. Guterres, by contrast, finds himself navigating a very fluid environment in which the major players at the UN are increasingly unwilling to compromise, creating fewer opportunities for peacemaking, even though the specter of major conflict among them remains relatively remote.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises like the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. But the UN may still have openings to address other challenges, such as cementing peace in Colombia, where the landmark peace deal with FARC rebels has yet to deliver on all of its promises, or supporting the current transition to civilian rule in Sudan, where the interests of the U.S., Russia and China may diverge but are not irreconcilably far apart.

The UN cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can fix some of them as opportunities arise. That is a realistic but nonetheless important lesson to learn from Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s stewardship of the organisation in a new era of global tensions.