School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

The Role of Legitimacy in UN Security Council Decision to “Re-Hat” the African Union’s Peacekeeping Mission in the Central African Republic

Dominique Fraser, The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Switzerland

Dominique Fraser is an editor of the R2P Student Journal. Her article is an excerpt from an Honours thesis, which included the case studies of Darfur and Somalia. The thesis was written in 2013/14 at the University of Queensland under the supervision of Prof. Alex Bellamy, Dr. Charles Hunt and Dr. Phil Orchard.

The reasons for the United Nations (UN) Security Council’s decision to assume responsibility over an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission are varied and complex. The present article discusses the phenomenon through the lens of legitimacy. It argues that legitimacy concerns were central to the UN Security Council’s decision to re-hat[1] the AU’s peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic in 2014. These legitimacy concerns impacted the Council’s decision in three ways. First, France advocated for a takeover as it wished to withdraw its troops but was aware that the AU’s peacekeeping mission MISCA[2] was unable to protect civilians on its own. The fact that MISCA was at best unable to protect civilians and at worst responsible for civilian insecurity convinced the US of the need for the UN to assume responsibility. Second, MISCA and France, which had also sent troops with its Operation Sangaris, had succeeded in establishing a basic level of security and a new transitional government had initiated the political process. These changes on the ground improved the likelihood of a successful UN peacekeeping mission, which would afford the Council increased legitimacy. Third, France’s support for a UN takeover were influenced by legitimacy concerns as France’s intervention in the Central African Republic was unwelcome by many locals on the ground, who saw it as illegitimate meddling. These three factors impacted on the UN Security Council’s decision to authorise MINUSCA[3] on the 10th of April 2014 by Resolution 2149, less than a year after MISCA had been established and despite AU resistance to the transfer.


Legitimacy is a key concept in the practice of international relations but has largely been neglected in its study (Clark, 2005, p.3; Zaum 2013: 4). For the purpose of this article, I use Clark’s (2005, p.2) definition of legitimacy as a ‘rudimentary social agreement about who is entitled to participate in international relations, and also about appropriate forms in their conduct’. For the UN Security Council, being seen as both the legitimate actor and behaving in a legitimate way is vitally important, as the Council depends on the international community – international organisations, states, nongovernmental organisations and civil society – to carry out its decisions (Welsh and Zaum, 2013, p.69). Its authority, therefore, relies on a perception of legitimacy (Hurd 2002: 46; Hurd and Cronin, 2008, p.3). According to Welsh and Zaum, (2013, p.71) the Council uses various ‘legitimation practices’ to safeguard against a loss of legitimacy. They define these practices as ‘a conscious attempt by states—either collectively or individually—to enhance an aspect of the Council’s legitimacy’ (Welsh and Zaum 2013, p.71). In this piece, the takeover of a peacekeeping mission from the AU is discussed as such a Security Council legitimation practice.

Legitimacy concerns also impact on the national interests of the Security Council’s five permanent members (P5): the US, UK, France, Russia and China. These members shape the Council’s agenda to a large degree. In contrast to the ten elected members, the P5 possess veto power, which allows them to block decisions (Boulden, 2006, p.412). They are also the ‘penholders’[4] on various country situations and thematic issues and have in-depth knowledge of Council working methods along with the backing of large permanent missions in New York (Lieberman, 2013). The P5’s national interests have largely been framed by realist conceptions around security and economic interests (see Andersson, 2000). However, as will be argued here, the P5 are more likely to advocate a takeover of an AU peacekeeping mission when their national interests are shaped by legitimacy concerns, as was the case in the Central African Republic.

Case Study: The Peacekeeping Takeover in the Central African Republic


The Central African Republic has seen ‘violent changes, corruption, the non-respect of human rights [and] repression of free political expression’ since its independence from France in 1960 (Commission of Inquiry, 2014, p.14). The current crisis began in December 2012, when a coalition of between 1,000 and 3,000 rebels calling themselves the Séléka (‘Alliance’) advanced on the capital Bangui (Warner, 2013). The Séléka was a group of loosely organised, predominantly Muslim combatants who fought to address religious marginalisation (HRW, 2013; ICG, 2013, p.3). The group was allegedly trained and aided by Chad, which has a long history of political and military involvement in the neighbouring country (Herbert, Dukhan and Debos, 2013, p.8).

By early 2013, the offensive had reached the capital Bangui (Warner, 2013). On the 23rd March, French troops deployed to secure the airport, calling on both the AU and the UN to address the unfolding crisis (Meilhan and Botelho, 2013). A day later, the Séléka overthrew president François Bozizé and installed their leader Michel Djotodia (ICG, 2013, p.3). Almost immediately, the Séléka began ‘killing civilians, raping women, and settling scores with members of the [army]’ (HRW, 2013). Most of the attacks were directed against the majority Christian population (HRW, 2013). In response, some Christian communities organised themselves into self-defence groups called anti-balaka (‘anti-machete’) (ICG, 2013, p.3). These groups then engaged in attacks against Muslim individuals and communities (ICG, 2013, p.3).

The report of the International Commission of Inquiry (2014. P.19) found that the killings did not constitute genocide, but declared that ‘ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population by the anti-balaka constitutes a crime against humanity’. Importantly, the anti-balaka, the Séléka and the national army were all engaged in ‘serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross abuses of human rights’ (Commission of Inquiry. 2014, p.7). The violence resulted in the death of between 3,000 and 6,000 people, the internal displacement of 440,000 and 190,000 refugees, as well as at least 1.5 million people who faced severe food insecurity (UN News, 2015).

On 19 July 2013, the AU Peace and Security Council (2013) authorised 3,500 peacekeepers to help the small and ineffective peacekeeping mission MICOPAX[5] deployed in the Central African Republic by the Economic Community of Central African States since 2008. The AU’s peacekeeping mission MISCA deployed alongside 2,000 French troops in December (Nichols, 2015). Both MISCA and the French Operation Sangaris were authorised by UN Security Council Resolution 2127 in the same month (UNSC, 2013b).

Five months after the establishment of MISCA, a modicum of stability had been established and both the transitional leaders of the Central African Republic and France repeatedly called on the UN Security Council to transition MISCA to a UN peacekeeping mission due to its inability to protect civilians (Al Jazeera, 2014; Kromah, 2014; UNSG, 2014a, p.11). On the 10th of April 2014, the Council unanimously voted for Resolution 2149, establishing a UN peacekeeping operation with up to 10,000 troops with the primary task of protecting civilians (UNSC, 2014a). The UN’s MINUSCA assumed responsibility from MISCA on 15 September (MINUSCA, 2014).

Three factors of legitimacy 

The remainder of the article explores the reasons for the Security Council’s decision to take over from the AU.  The AU’s MISCA faced two predominant issues before and during its deployment, which made the Security Council’s decision to authorise a takeover likely.  First, MISCA lacked adequate capacity to protect civilians and second, the mission had little likelihood of success. Finally, the national interests of the P5 combined with MISCA’s deficits ensured a UN takeover of the peacekeeping mission in CAR.

Capacity to protect civilians

While its mandate was well defined – including protecting civilians, stabilising the country and reforming the security sector – MISCA lacked the resources to perform these tasks (ICG, 2013, p.7; UNSC, 2013a). As the UN Secretary General report (2014a) from March 2014 noted, MISCA faced ‘significant challenges in terms of air mobility, information and communications systems, intelligence capacity, medical facilities and logistics supply and sustainment’. Additionally, the AU was unable to finance for its mission, relying on external funding, which came from the US (US$100 million) and the EU (€50 million) (UNSC, 2013c). The UN provided MISCA with much-needed technical support (AU Chairperson, 2014).

Out of all the challenges, perhaps the most pressing was a lack of troops to protect civilians. In February 2014, MISCA’s strength stood at 6,032 troops, which was insufficient for the mission to be visible to the local population outside the capital Bangui (UNSG, 2014a, p.10). The UNSG’s report (2014a, p.3) noted that despite MISCA’s best efforts, the mission was able to only offer ‘limited protection’. As a result of widespread violence which MISCA was unable to stop, the ‘demography of the country ha[d] changed radically’ by March 2014 (UNSG, 2014a, p.7). Almost 700,000 mostly Muslim civilians had been internally displaced, and over 288,000 civilians had fled to neighbouring countries (UNSG, 2014a).

In addition to their inability to protect civilians, MISCA’s troops sometimes did more harm than good to the population. In December 2013, peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) allegedly tortured two anti-balaka members to death; six months later, DRC troops were linked to the forced disappearance of eleven people (HRW, 2014a). On the 29th of March 2014, Chadian troops fired into a crowded market place in Bangui, killing 30 people (Welz and Meyer, 2014). Under great international pressure, Chadian troops were then forced to withdraw (Kromah, 2014).

In the same month as the Chadian contingent returned home, nine leading African and international non-governmental organisations called on the UN Security Council to establish a UN-led peacekeeping operation to protect civilians on the ground (HRW, 2014b). The letter stated that ‘[o]nly a strong UN peacekeeping mission will have the resources and the civilian expertise to improve the protection of civilians’ (HRW, 2014b). Pressure to re-hat MISCA also came from within the UN. In February 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that ‘the security requirements far exceed the capabilities of [MISCA and Operation Sangaris]’ and reiterated that both his office and the Security Council had clear protection responsibilities under the UN Charter (UNSC, 2014c). In his March report, the Secretary General also linked the AU’s lack of capacity and the need for UN peacekeeping: ‘the most important and urgent consideration is the protection of civilians … Consequently, I am proposing the rapid deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation’ (UNSG, 2014a, p.12).

The UK and the US eventually supported a takeover of MISCA, aware of the Security Council’s duty to protect civilians (UNSC, 2014d). Two months before the UN-led peacekeeping operation MINUSCA was authorised, the Council held a separate open topical debate on the Protection of Civilians in armed conflict, where the UK noted that ‘[t]he Council can and must play a key role in alleviating the impact on civilians in crisis’. At the same debate, the US emphasised the importance of issuing UN peacekeepers with strong protection mandates should civilians be at risk (UNSC, 2014a). France specifically mentioned the Central African Republic, stressing that civilian protection had to be strengthened in order to avoid a ‘hotbed for atrocities’ (UNSC, 2014a). These statements reflect a growing consensus among the Security Council’s Western members that the Protection of Civilians agenda should be a priority in UN peacekeeping missions, as the Council’s legitimacy depends on it (Bellamy and Williams in von Einsiedel, Malone and Ugarte 2015, p.21).

Likelihood of success

While MISCA was unable to protect civilians, the political situation on the ground improved during its deployment. In the areas of French and AU deployment in the capital Bangui, the killing rate reduced throughout December 2013 (Rohde, 2013). On the 10th of January 2014, Séléka leader Michel Djotodia stepped down as president and ten days later, former mayor of Bangui Catherine Samba-Panza was confirmed as new president by the Transitional National Council (UNSG, 2014a). The new administration wanted to move the political transition forward quickly and requested UN peacekeepers to allow it to do so (UNSG, 2014a). In January, the foreign affairs minister of the Central African Republic requested a UN peacekeeping mission ‘to stabilize the country and address the civilian aspects of the crisis’ (Mitchell ,2014).

These political changes in the capital indicated a stabilisation of the political landscape and made the transfer of the AU’s MISCA to the UN’s MINUSCA possible. UN peacekeeping was considered in earnest only after the AU and France had established some stability on the ground and after the political process had begun. Having drawn lessons from peacekeeping failures during the 1990s, the UN Security Council has been reluctant to authorise missions into ongoing conflicts. It is aware that peacekeepers deployed into unstable situations are less likely to achieve the mission’s mandate, which would severely damage the UNSC’s legitimacy (Boulden, 2013, p.7).

The AU was unimpressed with the plan to re-hat MISCA and asked the UN Security Council for more time to stabilise the country (Karlsrud 2015: 49). It had established MISCA partly because its members were embarrassed about their inability to send peacekeepers to Mali quickly a year earlier, instead relying on a French intervention (Ero 2013). In order to make up for its deficiencies in Mali, the AU’s permanent observer to the Security Council maintained on the 6th of January 2014 that ‘MISCA can meet the challenges before it’ (UNSC. 2014b). The Council however was unwilling to pander to the AU’s wishes, aware that its legitimacy was on the line due to the AU’s failure to protect civilians.

National Interests

Aside from the AU’s deficiency in stabilising the Central African Republic, the national interests of France, a permanent member of the Security Council, impacted significantly on the Council’s decision to take over from MISCA. France’s interests were shaped primarily by legitimacy concerns. As the Central African Republic’s former colonial power, France has had an almost constant military presence in the country and was the first international actor to react when the crisis broke out in December 2012 (Welz and Meyer, 2014). In March 2013, it sent 350 troops to secure the airport in Bangui and later reinforced the contingent to 1,000 when Operation Sangaris deployed alongside MISCA in December of the same year (ICG, 2013, p.8). While some claim that France’s intervention revolved around securing France’s economic interests (Welz and Meyer, 2014), most insist that France continues to have few economic interests in the central African country (Beardsley, 2013).

Instead, the French intervention was shaped by legitimacy concerns related to its role in Rwanda a decade earlier (Beardsley, 2013). From 1962, after the end of Belgium’s colonial rule in Rwanda, France took on the role as ‘protector’ of the Hutu-government, a relationship that afforded France not only with prestige, but also with economic opportunities (Wallis, 2006, p.10; Wyss. 2013. p.85). When the genocide of the Tutsi population was under way in mid-1994, France sided with the Hutu génocidaires, providing political cover for the genocidal government (Wallis, 2006). This national failure still loomed large in the minds of French public servants almost two decades later, and in 2013 many wanted to see an intervention to protect Central African civilians in a similar context (Beardsley, 2013).

However, once France was involved in the conflict, it had little interest in getting bogged down, having recently launched a large-scale intervention in Mali that had stretched its military budget (Ero, 2013; Irish and Flynn, 2014). When it first intervened, France had not anticipated how difficult the condition on the ground would be (Bouckaert in Ducrotté, 2014). The administration had thought that it would take a maximum of six months to stabilise the Central African Republic, believing that ‘a show of French force would be enough’ (Irish and Flynn, 2014). With the security situation worsening throughout 2013, France reluctantly became ever more involved. When France had first deployed on the 23rd March 2013, it had sent only 350 troops (Deutsche Welle, 2013). With the intensification of the conflict in December, the number of troops was increased to 1,000 (Willsher and Sparrow, 2013). February 2014 saw a further enlargement to 1,600 troops, with France promising to deploy another 400 by March (UNSG, 2014b).

In addition to the budgetary aspect, France was aware that many locals saw Operation Sangaris as an illegitimate neo-colonial intervention (Bachmann, 2014). In particular, the Muslim population perceived the French troops as biased against them and demanded that they leave (Bachmann, 2014; Beardsley, 2013).

With both budgetary and legitimacy concerns demanding a retreat, France advocated for a stronger role from the UN as early as December 2013, when Foreign Minister Fabius told the UN Secretary General that a UN takeover of MISCA may be necessary by mid-2014 (Nichols, 2014). When the government of Chad announced on the 3rd of April 2014 that it would withdraw its contingent from MISCA, France ramped up efforts to get the UN to take over from the AU (Kromah, 2014). France knew that it could not reasonably depart from the Central African Republic and leave MISCA alone on the ground, as the already-struggling mission had lost its core component (Kromah, 2014). Thus, it put forward UN Security Council Resolution 2149 on the 10th of April, which established MINUSCA (UNSC, 2014d).

The US eventually supported Resolution 2149, but only after several months of refusing to vote for the deployment of UN peacekeepers. When the conflict in the Central African Republic had broken out at the end of 2012, the US argued against sending UN peacekeepers and instead supported Operations Sangaris and the AU by committing $100 million in military assistance (Lynch, 2013; US Fact Sheet, 2015). Three reasons explain the US’s initial reluctance to support a UN peacekeeping mission (see Lynch, 2013). First, the US, like most other states, believed that the crisis would be resolved quickly. Second, aware that the deployment of a UN peacekeeping operation would take several months, the US saw the AU and French responses as the best option. Third, the Obama administration knew that Congress was unlikely to support another expensive peacekeeping mission in Africa after the recently established UN mission in Mali.

In the first US high-level visit to the Central African Republic since its independence in 1960, US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power visited the country in December 2013 (Roig-Franzia, 2013). Power (2003), a former Harvard professor and author of the book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is known for her role as advocate on using US power to end mass atrocity crimes overseas. During her trip to the Central African Republic, she urged Séléka leader Michel Djotodia to abide by his promise to organise elections promptly and to investigate those responsible for the violence (Roig-Franzia, 2013). When it became clear that the conflict would not be resolved quickly, it was Power who lobbied for UN peacekeepers within the US administration (Lynch, 2013). That the US eventually overcame its unwillingness to fund a UNPKO and supported the establishment of MINUSCA was primarily due to her efforts (Hamilton, 2014).

The UK, Russia and China were also initially satisfied with the French and AU peacekeeping initiatives (Baptiste 2014). Lack of involvement of core national interests and a belief that the conflict would be easily resolved were compounded by the fact that high-profile conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Iraq consumed much of the Council’s time (Baptiste, 2014; Hamilton, 2014). That the UK later openly supported the transfer of MISCA to MINUSCA was due to its concern over civilian insecurity.[6] On the other hand, China noted the need for the AU’s mission to be granted more time to stabilise the situation before a transfer could take place. It did so to please African states, which were against the re-hatting of MISCA. In the words of one observer, ‘the views of African regional organisations have emerged as an important factor influencing China’s position on the UN Security Council’ (Olsen, 2014, p.6). Despite China’s reluctance, civilian insecurity, the stabilised situation on the ground and French pressure convinced the Security Council to transition MICSA to a UN peacekeeping operation. On the 10th of April 2014, the Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2149, thereby establishing MINUSCA (UNSC, 2014d).


The case study of the transfer of peacekeeping responsibility from the AU to the UN in the Central African Republic demonstrates how legitimacy played the decisive role in the Security Council’s decision. It did so in three ways. First, France lobbied for a UN takeover, aware that it could not leave MISCA alone on the ground due to its inability to protect civilians. This concern became especially pressing after the large Chadian contingent withdrew from MISCA in April 2013. The US eventually supported French-sponsored Resolution 2149 due to the AU’s inability to protect civilians and to lobbying efforts by Ambassador Power. Importantly, the Council decided to re-hat MISCA before the AU was ready to hand over the mission. This is indicative of Western Council members’ increased willingness to take proactive action to protect civilians, aware that its legitimacy depends on it (Bellamy and Williams in von Einsiedel, Malone and Ugarte,  2015, p.21). Thus, the main determining factor for the Council’s decision to take over was the mission’s inability to protect civilians.

Second, UN peacekeeping in the Central African Republic was considered by the Council only after the AU and France had established some stability on the ground and after the political process had begun in combination with MISCA’s inadequate protection of civilians. The Council is aware that its legitimacy depends on its continued ability to authorise successful UN peacekeeping missions. The successful completion of past missions has afforded the Council international legitimacy (Williams, 2013, p.58), while unsuccessful missions have reduced its legitimacy (Brahimi Report,  2000, p.11). Therefore, the Council chooses where to take over from the AU very carefully and only if peacekeeping success is likely.

Third, legitimacy concerns were also the main reason for calls by the French mission to re-hat MISCA. France believes that its international legitimacy increases by engaging in ‘civilising missions’ in its former colonies and within its sphere of influence (Chafer,  2014, p.524). Much of this self-understanding can be traced back to France’s role in Rwanda in 1994, where its legitimacy had suffered from aiding the génocidaires (Wallis, 2006). When the conflict in the Central African Republic broke out, many French officials saw the chance to save civilians in a similar context as in Rwanda almost two decades before. When it realised that many locals regarded its intervention as illegitimate, it used its position on the Council to transition MISCA to a UN peacekeeping mission, aware that MISCA on its own was unable to protect civilians.

The situation in the Central African Republic in 2013 and 2014 is just one example of the increasingly important peacekeeping relationship between the AU and the UN. Continued research into this relationship is important, as it can reveal not only power dynamics between these two key players, but also decision-making procedures within the UN Security Council itself. Continued assessment of the Council’s decision-making process on peacekeeping matters is essential, as it reveals important aspects of the Security Council’s authority and gives an insight into today’s changing peacekeeping practice.


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[1] ‘Re-hatting’ refers to the process of handing over a peacekeeping mission from one actor (in this case the AU) to another (the UN). Its name comes from to changing of hats this results in: from green (the colour of the AU) to blue (the colour of the UN).

[2] MISCA is the French acronym for Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine

[3] The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated 
Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic

[4] The term ‘penholder’ refers to the state in charge of a specific issue related to the Council’s work. The task of a penholder is to draft resolutions and chair negotiations on their respective issues. Since 2008, the US, UK and France have generally been the penholders of most situations. This has widened the rift in power between these so-called P3 and the elected members of the Council. See Security Council Report. ‘In Hindsight: Penholders’. Available at Accessed 25 May 2015.

[5] La Mission de consolidation de la paix en Centrafrique

[6] Personal correspondence

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