AU Peacekeeping: Interview with Former Prime Minister of Italy

Romano Prodi is former Prime Minister of Italy and president of the European Commission (current European Union). He is currently visiting professor in the Watson Institute at Brown University. 

In September 2008, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon appointed Mr. Prodi to lead the United Nations-African Union panel on peacekeeping, with the goal of  'increasing engagement of the African Union in conflict prevention, peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction.'

 The Prodi Report: Joint AU-UN Report on AU Peacekeeping Operations was published in December, 2008. In this interview with Global Conversation, Mr. Prodi reflects on some of his experiences with his work on the AU-UN panel. 

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What was your first reaction when Mr. Ban Ki Moon asked you to do United Nations work in Africa in 2008? What relationship did you have with the continent

I was a bit surprised; at that moment, I was not engaged in international activities following my time as Prime Minister of Italy.

I have been an academic for 25 years. I started politics in 1995, so I do not have a very long political career. But I have always been concerned about the fact that Africa will not be able to solve its problems without strong connections. An Africa that remains fragmented — with no common market, and no common infrastructure will never be a growing continent.

 
Did you have to travel to specific areas, or meet specific leaders in your work? How did the composition of the panel — 2 Africans and 1 member each from Asia, Europe, Middle East and America — fit into its mandate?

 My task was very specific and centered around the linkage between Washington and Addis Ababa, although I still travelled to several African countries for different purposes. With regards to the panel — the members’ countries of origin were not as important as the work we had to do.

These were all experts who came from different backgrounds, with different perspectives. But once we harmonized our way of thinking after a few meetings, the panel was highly productive. What really mattered was the experience we had, and that members did not bring specific interests to the panel.


In your opinion, what was the single biggest challenge that the United Nations wanted to address by creating the panel? Were there specific events and shortcomings in the status quo that drove and necessitated the action of the United Nations?


54 Peacekeeping in Africa is not a new event – we’ve seen conflict on the continent for decades. Some periods have been more dramatic than others, and currently the number of conflicts has decreased just a little.

But conflict is still an endemic problem in Africa, and it is very clear than Western countries are less and less willing to send troops to Africa. The fact that responsibility for peacekeeping in Africa must fall more and more on Africa is no longer just an idea, but it is now a necessity


From your experience on the UN-AU peacekeeping panel, how big and important has been the challenge of conflict in post-colonial Africa up to present day — in terms of economic, humanitarian and other losses?

Conflict is not just a tragedy in terms of humanitarian losses. In any post-conflict society, it is extremely difficult to have sound political systems and growing economies. Conflict further multiplies tension along ethnic, religious, other differences, and it become difficult to establish sound governance in such divided countries

How does this problem of war in Africa compare to other parts of the world? In your opinion, why does Africa compare that way to other regions?

Africa has more conflict, but we have to understand that in terms of colonial history.

The fact that the borders in Africa are artificially organized makes the problem of conflict greater in Africa than in Asia or other continents. Ethnic groups were divided and borders were made depending only on colonial interests of European powers while disregarding the historical, geographic, economic or other factors specific to that region.

Such divisions increase tension, and conflict within a given country. 

 
One of the recommendations was the creation of a multi-donor fund to assist the AU; what sources of funding was yourpanel envisioning, and how do how do the long-term interests of the donors relate to the peace situation in Africa?


 That recommendation was not just based on the need to get more financing for the African Union; we alsoo envisioned helping African countries to individually engage the developed countries, for instance the G8 member states, more effectively and intensively.

What we are saying is, “Africa must no longer exist as a battlefield for Western interests, but instead, it should be a space for co-operation and engagement”

To that end, the annual forum on Africa that we hold [at World Wide Cooperation] is themed ‘53 countries, One Continent’ and brings together key political and economic protagonists from the African continent. Africa needs less fighting, and more cooperation.


You noted that the warm reception of the panel’s recommendations did not necessarily mean positive engagement. What did the panel, in its deliberation, envision as the way to ensure implementation and follow-up of its recommendations?
 

We did get some warm reception from African policy-makers, but our recommendations were not well received by former colonial powers in Europe. Britain, France, and so forth still clearly have deep ties with their former colonies, and were skeptical about our report, which emphasized more responsibility for the African Union, and the fact that Africa is not always ineffective. Even with the panel, we realized that efficiency does not take a single day to achieve.

Two years after the report, which specific recommendations have been followed through? In general, do you see any improvement – or potential thereof - in the material capability of the AU to maintain peace on the continent?

 There is some improvement, but on the important things we proposed, the pace of follow up has been too slow.  The multi-donor fund is not yet in place, because of political problems.

Common needs on the ground include weapons, training, and so forth. Peacekeeping forces are highly specialized, and different from regular military forces. It takes a lot of training and preparation until they are ready to deal with civilian problems and other complex negative events.


Hundreds of people have been reportedly killed in Ivory Coast since the disputed election last year. Do you see any role the AU could have played to avert, or moderate the situation?


With its current structure, the African Union was unable to doo much, although the international community needed to put more action. The delay to act was also because of the lack of strength, authority and means on the part of the AU.

Of course, French peacekeeping troops were used to protect some civilians, but that arrangement is not what we ideally want.

55 Ivory Coast's sworn rivals Laurent Gbagbo (left) and Alassane Outtarra. According to former Italian leader Prodi, quicker reaction and more capacity for the African Union would have lessened the damage caused by  fighting in the Western African country between forces loyal to Messrs Gbagbo and Outtarra.


 

In light of Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe or Sudan, etc, how do you quantify the political clout, will, and legitimacy of the AU — given enough capacity — to interfere in conflict areas without necessarily having the consent or co-operation of individual governments?

It will be a long, step-by-step process for the AU structure to gain full legitimacy; in Europe, it has taken us 50 years to get where we are. Authority comes when international efforts are trusted as concrete and effective.

Governments are encouraged to disobey any superior international power when they don’t trust the efficacy of intervention; in countries like Zimbabwe, there was lack of such clarity, and that is a situation of weakness.


The AU has complained against being ‘left-out’ in the international response to the Libyan crisis. How much do you think such a discord will affect the ability of the international community to handle the Libyan crisis? How does it affect the need for stronger AU-EU relations as encouraged in your panel’s report?

We have to change that question to include the fact that the African Union is now part of the dialogue. I think that regardless of what happened initially, the most important thing is that other countries were eventually obliged to include the African Union.

With regards to EU-African Union relations: they are good, but very insufficient. Especially at the national level in Europe, relations with Africa tend to focus on individual countries, but not the whole of Africa; traditionally, European countries focus more on their former colonies because of their long ties to them.


Do you think there are circumstances — human rights considerations, for instance — in which state sovereignty can be overstepped through intervention by international peacekeeping efforts?

Yes, under certain humanitarian considerations, intervention is acceptable without regard for state sovereignty. However, before such actions are taken, all efforts should be made to solve the existing problems though peaceful means and dialogue. In the African context, the AU is much more suited than any other international institution to lead such efforts. But in the case where dialogue has failed, there are circumstances when state sovereignty is not the sole rule of action.