UN report calls for maintaining Mali mission, bolstering Mopti deployment

Guterres warns of atrocities as he calls for boosting MINUSMA numbers to tackle insurgent groups

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a “high risk” of atrocities in Mali in a report that calls for maintaining U.N. peacekeeper numbers and beefing up the U.N. mission’s presence in the strife-torn center of the country.

In the report to the Security Council reported by AFP on Monday, June 4, Guterres said he was “appalled” by the upsurge in violence in Mali, and called on the government to strengthen its response to extremist groups.

“If these concerns are not addressed, there is a high risk of further escalation that could lead to the commission of atrocity crimes,” Guterres wrote in the report sent to the council on Friday.

At least 157 people, including 46 children, were massacred in Ogossagou in the central Mopti region on March 23. MINUSMA, the U.N. stabilization mission in Mali, later said the massacre could be a crime against humanity.

In April, Mali’s Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga warned the Security Council that a big drawdown of MINUSMA personnel could put at risk fragile gains made to contain the threat from extremist groups.

Maiga later resigned along with the entire government after weeks of protests over security in the center of the county.

With security worsening, Guterres recommended that there be no drawdown of the U.N. peacekeeping force, despite calls by the United States for cuts to blue helmet missions worldwide.

The MINUSMA mission should be extended for a year with its troop ceiling of 13,289 unchanged along with the maximum deployment of 1,920 police, Guterres said.

As of March, MINUSMA had 12,644 military and 1,734 police personnel, 454 staff officers and 39 experts deployed from more than 50 U.N. partner nations. The mission has a budget of more than $1 billion.

The Mali mission is considered the U.N.’s most dangerous, with 125 MINUSMA peacekeepers killed in attacks since deployment in 2013, and 18 this year alone. In the most recent deadly incident, a Nigerian peacekeeper was killed and another injured in an attack in Timbuktu in central Mali, while three Chadian peacekeepers were injured in a roadside bomb attack in Tessalit in the north of the country on the same day.

Guterres recommended that MINUSMA strengthen its presence in the center of the country, where attacks have been the deadliest, by deploying one or two police units, or about 280 police.

In addition, a U.N. camp in northern Mali could be handed over to Malian forces, freeing up 650 personnel for reinforcement in the central Mopti region, the report said.

The Security Council is set to vote on renewing MINUSMA’s mandate on June 27. In response to U.S. pressure, the council has requested that Guterres draw up options for “a potential significant adaptation” of MINUSMA. But the council also cautioned that changes to MINUSMA should enhance the blue helmets’ ability to support the peace deal “without jeopardizing the stability of Mali and its region.”

Mali – key to security in the Sahel

Once considered a beacon of democracy and stability in Africa, Mali in recent years has been dogged by a coup, civil war and Islamist terrorism.

In 2012 a Tuareg separatist uprising against the state was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north.

France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, and the MINUSMA peacekeeping force was then established.

But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Large swathes of Mali remain outside government control.

The French mission evolved in August 2014 into the current 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel, including 2,700 soldiers in Mali to support poorly-equipped local military forces.

Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside other international operations, including MINUSMA and the regional G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel.

The U.N. Security Council in December 2017 authorized MINUSMA to provide assistance to the G5 Sahel joint Force but only in Malian territory. That support can include medical and casualty evacuations, the provision of fuel, water and food, as well as U.N. engineering plant equipment and material and uniformed MINUSMA engineering units to assist in preparation of bases.

G5 Sahel Joint Force funding still lacking

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has taken a harder line on U.N. funding in general, cutting contributions and pushing for cost-saving reforms. It is also seeking to streamline peacekeeping operations to reduce costs and make them more effective.

National Security Advisor John Bolton in December said the U.S. will seek to wind down long-running U.N. peacekeeping missions that do not bring long-term peace.

The U.S. has also resisted new U.N. funding for peacekeeping initiatives led by African organizations.

However, last November, an ambitious push by African countries to secure U.N. financing for future African Union-led peace missions faced strong resistance from the United States.

In February, leaders of the G5 Sahel group of African nations again called for regular U.N. funding and other aid to help tackle cross-border jihadist insurgency in the region.

Guterres has pledged to pursue support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The Secretary-General, as well as France, has lobbied for regular U.N. funding, but the U.S has pushed back against direct funding for the force.

Last month, Burkina Faso appealed to the Security Council to form an international coalition to help governments of the Sahel region fight insurgents, and again called for more support for the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force.

Foreign Minister Alpha Barry said that addressing the threat from extremists was a “major emergency to prevent a collapse of our states and avert generalized chaos on our continent, which would have multiple repercussions for the rest of the world.”

He argued that the threat from extremists in the Sahel should be tackled with same determination shown by world powers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the international community should “consider creating an international coalition that would tackle terrorism on the territories of the G5 and in the entire Sahel.”

Barry said the G5 countries are spending a large part of their budgets – 18 to 32 percent – on security, to the detriment spending on social services, but that despite this spending the security situation is deteriorating.

He said the Joint Force was now “on its feet” – 90% operational in the west, 74% in the center and 75% in the east – and has carried out seven operations in 2019, but still lacks heavy equipment needed to achieve full operational capacity. He again called for a new U.N. support system to enable the Joint Force to transition into full operationalization.

At the same May meeting, Guinea’s Bintou Keita, the Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, said the security situation in the Sahel region, the worsening humanitarian crisis, poor governance and a lack of resources combine to make fertile ground for violent extremism.

Keita said the full operationalization of the Joint Force should be accelerated, but noted that even when fully operational, the force cannot fight terrorism and stabilize the region sustainably by itself.

Many Security Council members at the meeting called for “predictable” U.N. funding for the Joint Force, but U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen said bilateral assistance remains the best way to support the Joint Force, and expressed disappointment with calls for funding under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

Despite almost doubling U.S. assistance to the G5 Sahel member states to almost $111 million, that support to Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger takes the form of “bilateral security cooperation efforts,” rather than direct funding for the joint force, a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson told The Defense Post in November.

With reporting from AFP

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