The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

The African Union (AU)

The African Union (AU) was founded in 2002 at the Durban Summit, under the Sirte Declaration of 9 September 1999, replacing the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

The African Union currently has fifty-four Members States, and its headquarters are in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Union is headed by a rotating president, who holds a one-year term. Since January 2013, it is Haile Mariam Dessalegn, from Ethiopia.

Mandate and Objectives

The objective of the African Union is the promotion of democracy, human rights, and development in Africa. The specific objectives are defined in Article 3 of the Constitutive Act of the Union. They are, inter alia, to defend the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, and the independence of its Member States; accelerate the political and socioeconomic integration of the African continent; promote and defend African positions in international forums; promote peace, security, and stability on the African continent; and promote and protect human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other relevant instruments concerning human rights.

African Commission and African Court for Human Rights


The main institutions of the African Union were put in place in July 2003 at the Maputo Summit in Mozambique. These organs are the Assembly, the Commission, the Peace and Security Council, and the Pan-African Parliament.

  • The Assembly, composed of heads of State and government, is the supreme organ of the Union. Its functions are, inter alia, to determine the common policies of the Union, establish its priorities, and adopt its annual program and budget; monitor the implementation of policies and decisions of the Union, as well as ensure compliance by all Member States through appropriate mechanisms; give directives to the Executive Council and the Peace and Security Council on the management of conflicts, war, acts of terrorism, emergency situations, and the restoration of peace; decide on intervention in a Member State in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity; and decide on intervention in a Member State at its request in order to restore peace and security. Moreover, the Assembly appoints the chairman of the Commission and his or her deputy or deputies and commissioners and appoints the judges of the Court of Justice.
  • The Commission is the administrative body of the Union, in charge of its daily management. It is composed of the chairman, vice chairman, and eight commissioners, assisted by staff. Each commissioner is in charge of a portfolio from among the following: Peace and Security; Political Affairs; Trade and Industry; Infrastructure and Energy; Social Affairs; Rural Economy and Agriculture; Human Resources, Science, and Technology; and Economic Affairs. Among other duties, the Commission represents the Union and defends its interests before intergovernmental organizations; develops draft common positions and multiyear strategic plans to be submitted to the Executive Board and the Assembly; and ensures the development, promotion, coordination, and harmonization of policies and programs of the Union. Until 2012, the president of the Commission was Jean Ping of Gabon. The election of a new president was scheduled for January 2012 at the eighteenth summit of the organization, but it failed after four ballots, the heads of State failing to decide between the outgoing president and the South African minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. After six months, it was ultimately Mrs. Zuma who was elected on 15 July 2012 at the nineteenth summit of the Union. She became the first woman to hold this position, while for the first time the presidency of the Commission was given to a continental great power, and moreover an English-speaking one. This election was marred by allegations of pressure from South Africa, which is likely to create resentment within the organization. This blockage also caused some division between small and large countries of the Union, as well as between English-speaking and French-speaking States.
  • The Peace and Security Council is the body responsible for the promotion of peace, security, and stability in Africa; preventive diplomacy and the maintenance of peace; as well as disaster management and humanitarian action (see below for more information).
  • The Pan-African Parliament is a body that aims to provide a common platform for African peoples and their grassroots movements to be more involved in discussions and decision making on the problems and challenges facing the African continent. It exercises advisory and consultative powers. In addition, the Union has an Economic, Social, and Cultural Council (advisory body) as well as eight Specialized Technical Committees (which correspond to the commissioners’ portfolios) and three financial institutions (the African Central Bank, the African Monetary Fund, and the African Investment Bank). The Union also has a court of justice: the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, created in 2008 after the merger of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court of Justice. Both institutions continue to operate during the transition period preceding the entry into force of this treaty.

African Commission and African Court for Human Rights

Promotion of Peace and Security

One of the principles of the African Union, stated in Article 4.e of the Constitutive Act, is the “peaceful resolution of conflicts among Member States of the Union.” However, Article 4.h authorizes the Union to intervene in a Member State “in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.” Besides, the Member States may directly request the intervention of the Union (Art. 4.j) in order to restore peace and security on their territory. In addition, the Protocol on Amendments to the Constitutive Act of the African Union, adopted in 2003, adds a circumstance that authorizes the intervention of the Union in a Member State, namely “a serious threat to the legitimate order.” By adding this clause, which is very large, the African Union takes a clear interventionist stance that allows it to define what this “legitimate order” is and to act on behalf of the “Responsibility to protect” concept.


The body responsible for implementing these goals is the Peace and Security Council (PSC), which has the power, among other things, to impose sanctions on Member States and authorize peacekeeping missions (upon the final decision of the Assembly). It is composed of fifteen Member States representing the five subcontinental regions, namely Central Africa, North Africa, South Africa, East Africa, and West Africa. Ten of its members are elected for a two-year term, while the other five are elected for a term of three years to ensure continuity. These members meet twice a month at the permanent representatives’ level and once a year at the level of heads of State and government. Since 2004, the PSC has been involved in several crises, such as Burundi, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, and Côte d’Ivoire.

Burundi represents the first AU attempt in the field of peacekeeping, with the African Union Mission in Burundi (AMIB) deployed from April 2003 to May 2004 in order to oversee the implementation of the Arusha peace agreements, signed in October 2002. This mission, which had up to 3,300 soldiers and observers, was led by South Africa and was composed mainly of Ethiopian and Mozambican contingents. The mandate of AMIB was to oversee the implementation of the Arusha agreements; support initiatives in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR); create favorable conditions for the presence of a UN peacekeeping mission; and contribute to the political and economic stability of Burundi. AMIB soldiers had the right to use force in self-defense but also to ensure the freedom of movement of troops and equipment and to protect civilians under imminent threat. This mission is part of the second generation of peacekeeping missions, which combines traditional tasks such as cease-fire monitoring and more complex tasks such as DDR activities.

Another example of the involvement of the African Union in the maintenance of peace is Somalia. After the civil war that tore Somalia apart again in 2007, the AU created the AMISOM (January 2007), a peace support mission authorized by the UN Security Council (resolution 1744). The objective of this mission was to support Somali forces in their national reconciliation process and create favorable conditions for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission. However, AMISOM is still present in Somalia, with a mandate renewed by the Security Council in March 2013 and extending until February 2014. The current mandate of AMISOM provides for the protection of Somali authorities as well as the protection of all actors involved with the peace and reconciliation process in Somalia, but it does not allow the use of force for the protection of civilians. In conformity with resolution 2036 of the UN Security Council (February 2012), the AMISOM is authorized to deploy up to 17,731 soldiers, mainly from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, and Kenya.

In Darfur, the African Union works alongside the UN in the framework of UNAMID, a UN/AU hybrid mission authorized by the Security Council in July 2007 by resolution 1769. The mandate of UNAMID is essentially to protect civilians but also to ensure the safety of the delivery of humanitarian aid, monitor and verify the implementation of peace agreements, promote an inclusive political process, contribute to the promotion of human rights and the rule of law, and monitor the situation along the borders with Chad and the Central African Republic. The current mandate of UNAMID has been renewed until August 2014 by resolution 2113 of the Security Council (July 2013). As of 30 June 2013, the mission consisted of more than 14,474 troops, 386 military observers, and about 4,893 policemen. Nearly twenty-two African countries contribute to this mission, mainly from South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Burundi. This mission clearly fits into the “third generation” of peacekeeping missions, also called “complex operations.”

In order to ensure a rapid military deployment and to help decision making, the African Union followed the UN example and created the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS), a system of conflict prevention through the collection of data and information, as well as the African Standby Force (ASF), which is equivalent to the UNSAS. It is composed of five regional brigades that include military, civilian, and police components: the Western Brigade (ECOBRIG), established within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); the Central Brigade (FOMAC), under the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS); the Southern Brigade (SADCBRIG), under the Southern African Development Community (SADC); the Eastern Brigade (EASBRIG), coordinated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); and the Northern Brigade (NASBRIG), coordinated by the North Africa Regional Capability (NARC). The ASF has been designed to be deployed within six scenarios: (1) observation and monitoring missions; (2) preventive deployments in the case of rising political tensions; (3) humanitarian assistance missions; (4) traditional peacekeeping operations; (5) peace support in a non-permissive environment; and (6) forceful intervention in a Member State in grave circumstances, namely war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. This Standby Force should have been operational in 2010; however, this has not been possible, especially since the AU is entirely dependent on external assistance in terms of logistics and finance. Thus, it is expected to become operational by 2015.


Despite these achievements, the African Union still lacks strong political commitment in the maintenance of peace. These shortcomings were highlighted during the political crisis in Mali after the coup d’état of 22 March 2012 and the loss of control of the north of the country by the government, taken by jihadists and separatist armed groups. In response to this crisis, the African Union and ECOWAS have quickly implemented sanctions against the military junta, including travel bans and the freezing of assets of several personalities of the junta. In early July 2012, ECOWAS also sent a Technical Assessment Mission to Bamako with the participation of the AU, with the aim to prepare the deployment of the ECOWAS Standby Force in the country. The purpose of such a mission, authorized by the African Union, would be to assist the transitional authorities to secure and consolidate Malian institutions, strengthen the capacity of Malian armed forces, and support the national army to regain control of the north.

After it indicated in resolution 2056 of July 2012 that it needed to have more details on the objectives, means, and methods of a deployment of an international force, the UN Security Council finally authorized the intervention plan for an international military force in the north of Mali through resolution 2085 of 20 December 2012. This force, called the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), deployed for an initial period of one year, became operational in mid-January 2013, with soldiers from Senegal, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.

Confronted with the slow deployment of the African force, the Malian government appealed to the military support of France, which intervened in January 2013, thus increasing the effectiveness of the international response while also complicating it.

On 25 April 2013, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2100, which authorized the deployment, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). This mission is effective since 1 July 2013. It integrates elements of the AFISMA.

African Union Headquarters

PO Box 3243

Roosevelt Street

(Old Airport Area)


Addis Ababa


Tel: (251) 11 551 77 00

Fax: (251) 11 551 78 44

@ Websites:

For Additional Information: Bachmann, O. “The African Standby Force: External Support to an ‘African Solution to African Problems’?” Brighton Institute of Development Studies. Research Report 200-67 (April 2011).

Chouala, Yves-Alexandre. “Puissance, résolution des conflits et sécurité collective à l’ère de l’Union Africaine.” Annuaire Français des Relations Internationales 6 (2005): 288–306.

Edou Mvelle, A. R. “La Force Africaine en Attente à l’ère de la responsabilité de protéger.” Revue défense nationale 221 (2011).

Kioko, B., and M. Malan. “The Right of Intervention under the African Union’s Constitutive Act: From Non-interference to Non-intervention.” International Review of the Red Cross 852 (December 2003): 807–25.

Kent, V. “The African Standby Force: Progress and Prospects.” African Security Review 12, no. 3 (2003): 71–81.

Peen Rodt, A. M. “The African Mission in Burundi: The Successful Management of Violent Ethno-Political Conflict?” Exeter Center for Ethno-Political Studies. Ethno Politics Papers 10 (May 2011).

South African Institute for Security Studies. “The Role and Place of the African Standby Force within the African Peace and Security Architecture.” ISS Paper 209 (January 2010).

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