Mali: Humanitarian Challenges and Fragile Security, What Role for the UN?

Despite heavy August rain, Gunhilde Utsogn (Special Assistant to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Mali) and John Karlsrud’s (NUPI) discussion on the humanitarian challenges facing Mail drew a large audience of academics, NGO workers, representatives from international organizations, embassies and the Norwegian armed forces to PRIO. Co-hosted by PRIO and NCHS, the seminar aimed to take stock of current developments in Mali and their ramifications for humanitarian action, as the war-torn country holds elections and welcomes the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission.

The events occurring in Mali are often presented as a fall-out from the Libya conflict: Northern Malians, who had for decades resided in Libya, returned to Mali well-trained and well-armed after the fall of Qadhafi. Northern Mali has a long history of Tuareg-rebellion against the Southern elite located in the capital Bamako, and has over the years seen a smuggler economy develop in the region, as it serves as a transit route for drug trafficking from South America to Europe as well as for weapons trafficking. Frustrated by the presidents’ handling of the rebellion, and by the rebels’ easy defeat of the Malian army; a faction of young officers seized power in a coup in March 2012. The Tuaregs took over control over the North of Mali in the power vacuum that followed, only to lose this control to the well-armed Islamists shortly after. The transitional president subsequently invited France to come to the rescue. In January 2013, French troops intervened militarily to stop the advance of the Islamists, following their capture of key towns in the North. Yet despite the military successes of the French troops breaking the Islamists’ control of this part of the country, the security situation remains volatile. In April, the UN Security Council agreed to send troops to take over from the French and African forces. This peacekeeping force, to which Norway has committed to contribute, began arriving last month. Meanwhile, an accord was signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg rebellion at the end of June in Ouagadougou. Despite some irregularities, the first round of presidential elections on July 28 saw a record turn-out of voters and the second round was conducted successfully on 11 August, leading to the victory of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

However, the humanitarian situation in the region remains highly precarious. For many observers, the challenge in Mali is not so much an emergency as a development crisis, where long term strategies are needed. Even before the 2012-events, food insecurity was chronic, with hundreds of thousands of malnourished children. The rainy season frequently brings cholera outbreaks. Yet, the conflict has undoubtedly exacerbated the problems: 800,000 children have already missed a school year. Despite the generosity of neighboring countries in opening their borders, the high number of Malian refugees in the region and the displaced population inside the country makes the situation even more fragile.

The key issue emerging from the debate between the speakers and the audience is whether the current UN mission, with its ambitious but highly aggressive mandate, is what Mali needs?

MINUSMA will be a fairly standard large multidimensional peacekeeping mission, with about 11200 troops, 1440 police and probably more than 1000 international and national civilian staff. The mandate authorizes MINUSMA to stabilize key population centers and to “deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas”. It should also create a secure environment and secure the main roads. The French troops in Serval will operate alongside MINUSMA “to intervene in support of elements of MINUSMA”. MINUSMA is also given a broad range of substantive tasks including security sector reform, demobilization and reintegration of armed rebels, including children, good offices, supporting an inclusive dialogue, and supporting the presidential and legislative elections.

Although the mandate is fairly aggressive if one reads between the lines, it is not as explicit as the mandate that recently was given to MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, the trend of increasingly assertive mandates given to peace operations, effectively turning these operations into peace enforcement operations is worrying. None of the traditional principles for UN peacekeeping will in effect apply – including consent of all the parties, the non-use of force and impartiality. MINUSMA is also tasked with supporting the new government in re-establishing or extending state authority and few if any will be in doubt about the fact that the mission will be partial. The human rights record of the national army is weak at best, and although the mandate includes a task in training the national army, human rights violations can be expected to continue, in turn also tainting MINUSMA.

It is also paradoxes that while the mandates for UN peacekeeping operations are becoming increasingly aggressive; the tolerance for losses of UN troops is going down. Since the bombings of the UN HQ in Baghdad in 2003, in Algeria in 2007, and other more recent attacks in Nigeria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the UN has been criticized for its ‘bunkerisation’ – imposing increasingly strict security measures that in effect closes the UN off from contact with the local population. This is especially the case for the UN’s humanitarian agencies but also its civilian peacekeepers. Although the UN argues that this is not the case so far in Mali, only one successful terrorist attack can and will change this situation overnight. The increasing likelihood of “terrorist” attacks against aggressive UN peace “enforcement”, also means that attacks against other UN agencies operating in the same volatile area, or humanitarians for that matter, may increase.

Internally, the aggressive mandate of MINUSMA also deepens the schisms between the military, political and development components of the UN on the one hand, and the humanitarians on the other. From the humanitarian perspective, there is considerable concern that the peacekeeping mission will infringe on the humanitarian space (humanitarian agencies to operate safely and effectively on the ground) and compromise humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and universality, understood by humanitarians themselves as preconditions for gaining access to civilians in war-torn areas. UN humanitarian actors may soon find themselves imposed with escorts due to a tightening of security rules and the mandate to secure roads in the North. In what is still effectively a war zone, the different parts of the UN may very quickly come at odds with each other.

These concerns are well-known from debates on the costs of stabilization missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the last two decades, peacebuilding and stabilization programs have incorporated humanitarian aspects into their mandates, contributing to serious problems in the field for humanitarian actors.

Over the last decade a division of labor has developed between international organizations engaged in conflict and post-conflict situations in Africa. Regional and sub-regional organizations have engaged in the sharper end of conflicts with peace enforcement missions, e.g. in Somalia, while the UN has focused on the following phase of peacekeeping. Naturally, many cases blur this distinction, but in principle this has been a mutually good division of work. However, with the recent mandates for MONUSCO in DRC and MINUSMA in Mali, a worrying trend of a more aggressive UN is emerging. To sum up the discussion, a central question is if this aggressive peacekeeping is what Mali needs and which long-term consequences for humanitarian action can be expected?