For the second time since its creation, the African Union Peace and Security Council (PSC) will be holding a retreat between the 4th and 5th of December 2008 in Livingstone, Zambia. The first retreat, which aimed at revising the rules of procedure of the PSC, was held last year in Senegal.
The theme of the retreat is “Interaction between the Peace and Security Council and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs).” Its objective is to operationalise article 20 of the PSC Protocol that calls for institutionalisation of civil society PSC engagement. It should be noted that civil society has been engaging with the PSC either formerly or informally through its members. However these engagements have been ad hoc. What inference can one deduce from this attempt at institutionalising PSC civil society engagement? How will this formalisation impact on the African peace and security agenda?
The mentioning of civil society a few years ago with regards to governance, human rights, peace and security on the continent would raise eyebrows since states regarded these as falling within their exclusive jurisdiction. However, civil society is increasingly being looked upon as an important institution to support, complement and enhance the activities of the African peace and security architecture.
Does Livingstone signal a new realism in African international relations? From a theoretical perspective, operationalising article 20 of the PSC Protocol suggests the emergence of non-state actors in Africa’s international relations. But most importantly it is a policy and an unequivocal political acceptance of the value added role of civil society in conflict prevention, management and resolution and also the promotion of human rights. However, it should be cautioned that the significance of this political acceptance would to a great extent be measured by the conditions set out for civil society to engage with the PSC and also the quality of engagement. Drawing from the experience of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union, sceptics could argue formalising PSC civil society engagement is nothing but creating institutional barriers rather than bridges. Nevertheless, the plausibility of this argument should be measured against the need for ownership of the African peace and security agenda.
It has become easy and fashionable to argue that the AU has failed in certain crisis situations because of the lack of political will. This is not entirely true. By operationalisng PSC civil society engagement, one can make the argument that using end results as a measuring to assess the effectiveness of the AU is flawed. Institutionalising PSC civil society engagement is a signal that there is a need to understand and capacitate the AU decision making process. The point here is, by focusing on end results many attempts at assessing the success of the AU falls into the trap of measuring consequences or reflecting a phenomenon and in the process demonising the AU rather than taking a critical look at the AU decision making process and the political significance of its decisions. For example, while is it easy to make the argument that the AU has failed in curbing certain conflicts, either by virtue of the fact that there has not been regime change, continuous conflict, or because of the increasingly dire humanitarian situation, this argument does not do justice to the AU, considering the richness of its debate and robustness of its decision making processes. Consequently, while the AU in many instances has provided leadership and political will in addressing certain crises, it should be appreciated that contemporary geostrategic realities are constrains it faces to accomplish its objectives.
To conclude, any attempt at strengthening the capacity of the African peace and security architecture and the AU decision-making process, should also take cognisance of the need to strengthen the capacity of African civil society organisations. Nevertheless, the capacity of African civil society to complement, support and enhance African peace and security is contingent on their capacity to influence policy makers – be it formerly or institutionally.