ISS: South Africa’s vital role in the future of peacekeeping


By 1 January 2019 South Africa will be one of Africa’s three representatives on the UN Security Council. The country can use this opportunity to actively promote more effective peacekeeping responses by the UN, while also repositioning itself as a troop-contributing country.

Peacekeeping has often been caught in the middle of council members’ geopolitical differences, including its permanent members (P5). Since the launch of the High-Level Panel on Peace Operations report in 2015, numerous initiatives by the UN and its member states have been started to enhance the effectiveness and quality of peacekeepers.

In early 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative. It is expected to help member states better understand UN peacekeeping accomplishments, challenges and opportunities.

Challenges faced by the Security Council are particularly reflected in the heated debates around peacekeeping budget cuts, largely pushed by the United States. The council has recently focused on strengthening accountability, behaviour and leadership as a measure of the performance of peacekeeping operations.

SA must contribute to critical Security Council debates if it wants to enhance peacekeeping

Non-permanent members of the Security Council, the E10, are caught in the middle of the permanent members’ differences. Many E10 members have recently been finding creative ways to play a more constructive role on the council. South Africa has already informally started engaging with the council, and on 13 and 14 November it hosted, together with Sweden, E10 talks in Pretoria that included outgoing and ingoing countries.

Contributing to peacekeeping discussions in the Security Council won’t be an easy task for South Africa. A recent study by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) shows that the country has lost some of its visibility in UN peace and security matters, including its peacekeeping contributions.

Peacekeeping has been a priority for South African foreign policy since the late 1990s, and was presented as one of the key focus areas during its campaign to join the council. However the country has reduced its contributions to UN operations in recent years. Currently South Africa has 1 242 personnel deployed to UN operations, most of them to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

South Africa is replacing Ethiopia as one of the three African Security Council members. Ethiopia – the largest troop-contributing country to the UN – was a key champion on peacekeeping during its term on the council. It has now created a space for another African member state’s views on how to improve peacekeeping.

South Africa should identify practical ways to overcome some of the deadlocks in the council’s peacekeeping discussions. Some incoming members, such as Belgium and Germany, have strong interests in peacekeeping and have previously served on the Security Council with South Africa. Alliances could be made to move discussions forward.

For instance ill-defined debates on stabilisation, the role of ad hoc security initiatives such as the G5 Sahel, and peacekeepers engaging in counter-terrorism could benefit from more specific, evidence-based analysis. This would help council members make informed decisions. Similarly, the council’s focus on accountability and performance should consider the role of technology in peacekeeping operations.

Peacekeeping is often caught in the middle of Security Council members’ geopolitical differences

UN-African Union (AU) relations, which South Africa pushed in its previous tenures on the council, have gained importance at the Security Council. But the council has often been paralysed by disagreements on peace operations funding, including through UN-assessed contributions.

The council must find new ways to overcome these stalemates and strengthen the relationship between the UN and AU. Other than joint sessions between the Security Council and AU Peace and Security Council, a good entry point for South Africa would be to ensure that appropriate follow-up and action is taken on decisions made.

An internal revision of its own role in peacekeeping would help South Africa find its direction on peace and security issues on the council. Despite reduced contributions, the country remains relatively active in peacekeeping operations. The focus now is on the UN Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC. The former Force Commander was South African, and numerous troops are still deployed to support the UN’s Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).

SA has lost some visibility in UN peace and security matters, including its peacekeeping contributions

Elections are planned for the DRC in December, and irrespective of the results, the DRC is expected to remain a key Security Council issue from January 2019 onwards. The future of MONUSCO, including its potential drawdown, will be an important axis for South Africa’s peacekeeping positions on the council. South Africa must also show a commitment to addressing the numerous allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by its soldiers in the DRC.

While its role as a troop-contributing country is important, South Africa shouldn’t be perceived as just that. One peacekeeping analyst told the ISS that ‘we tend to see African states discussing peacekeeping issues when it relates to their own roles as troop-contributing countries or when it relates to UN-AU relations, but we see little African participation in broader conceptual and practical peacekeeping discussions’.

Peacekeeping will certainly be one of South Africa’s priorities during its membership on the Security Council. To improve peacekeeping as a tool for the UN, the country will need to make its mark on critical debates over the next two years. South Africa would then be recognised as a council member that finds constructive solutions to achieving effective, responsive and pragmatic peacekeeping.

Written by Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.