The Promise and Peril of a UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali

The head of UN Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous briefed the press today, leaving a strong impression that a UN peacekeeping mission for Mali is coming in the near future. The mandate and structure of the mission is for the Security Council to decide, but it looks like key Council players have agreed, at least in principal, on the need and desirability of blue helmets in Mali.

So what can we expect?

The Perils: 

1) Peacekeeping is not peace enforcement. For peacekeeping to be effective there needs to be some sort of peace to keep. This means that the central government in Bamako needs to come to an understanding with Tuareg rebels as part of a peace process that addresses the legitimate grievances of the Tuaregs.  Deploying peacekeepers without a real peace agreement in place is a recipe for disaster.

2) Terrorism. In many places where peacekeepers have deployed after a peace agreement is signed there are naturally elements that want the peace agreement to fail. These are called spoilers, and in the case of Mali the most serious spoilers will likely be Islamist groups whose ideology makes it difficult for them to be co-opted through politics.

We can be certain that blue helmets will be the target of terrorist attacks in Mali. Other UN entities, like UNICEF or the WFP may also come under attack, as they have been in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Islamist groups in the region have attacked the UN in the past–the Abudja bombing of UN headquarters was the second deadliest attack against the UN in history. With a more visible and beefed up UN presence, we can be sure that the UN will be targets in Mali.

The Promise:

1) UN peacekeeping works! After the peacekeeping failures in Bosnia and Rwanda of the 1990s, UN peacekeeping underwent a series of profound structural changes which have mightily improved UN peacekeepings record over the past 10-15 years.  UN Peacekeepers have played a critical role of bringing Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, East Timor and other places back from devastating civil wars. The UN has tremendous experience and expertise in complex peacekeeping missions which they will put to good use in Mali.

2) Long term commitments.  Part of the reason that peacekeeping works is that it ensures a steady stream of support from the international community. To be successful, peacekeeping and peace-building must last many years. The mechanisms of UN peacekeeping are such that the international community stays committed the endeavor long after it fades from headlines.

This commitment comes in two forms. The first is financial. Every UN member state helps pay the cost of each mission. The US pays the most, at 27%, with the rest of the world picking up the other 73% of the tab. There is little chance that funding for a mission would dry up before it is complete. Also, mission-specific funding is somewhat immune from domestic politics in member states. (This is as opposed to funding for something like the African Union mission in Somalia, which the US Congress could cut at anytime).  The second long term commitment is political. Peacekeeping missions are standing agenda items of the Security Council. Every few months, the most powerful countries in the world gather to discuss, strategize, etc on the mission. For its part, the UN secretariat tends to pursue long term social and economic development projects to support the mission. Peacekeeping missions are rarely neglected — too many entities have too much invested in their success.

3) La France. The most successful UN missions have been those that have the backing of a western country with sophisticated military capabilities. In Sierra Leone, the British deployed their own troops. In Liberia, the USA provided key support. In East Timor, it was the Australians.  It’s unclear whether the French troops in Mali will be re-hatted with Casques Bleu, or whether they will remain on the side. But their presence is key–particularly in going after the spoilers. So long as the French have skin in the game with troops on the ground, the mission in mission will have certain capacities and capabilities that augur well for mission success.

I wish I could make a bold statement about the chances of success or failure of a UN Mali mission, but as you can see there are forces pushing in both directions.