Why Mali is a Strategic Minefield for the Security Council

Ed note. This is a special guest post by Michael Boyce of Refugees International

The Islamist insurgency taking place in northern Mali is one of the main drivers of recent displacement in that country. So far, roughly 400,000 Malians have been forced to flee their homes, and violence in the north has hindered the delivery of aid to vulnerable populations. Reports of human rights abuses are widespread – including executions, torture, rape and other forms of violence against women, and recruitment of child soldiers.

But recent calls for military intervention in Mali (by a joint African Union-ECOWAS force known as AFISMA) are not only a response to humanitarian and human rights concerns. The fact that Al Qaeda-inspired groups have seized a vast swathe of the Sahara has alarmed Western counterterrorism officials, who fear it could become a new base for recruitment and operations. They wish to see that threat neutralized – and fast. Mali’s neighbors likewise fear the spread of terrorist activity into their own countries and are keen to see Mali’s territorial integrity restored.

And, of course, there are the concerns of the Malian government itself. After President Amadou Toumani Touré failed to quell the rebellion in March, his own soldiers removed him from office. Those mutineers have now formally relinquished control, but experts claim that they still hold the levers of power in Bamako – and that they are committed to succeeding where President Touré failed.

Given all we have witnessed in Mali, we are concerned that the brutal logic of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism could have serious humanitarian consequences in Mali. Instead of getting more aid to those who need it, a war could further restrict humanitarian access, cause more displacement, and inflict further human rights abuses on a vulnerable population.

As part of its continuing work on the Sahel, Refugees International has been closely monitoring the intervention debate, and we recently reviewed the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s report on AFISMA. The report, which was requested by the Security Council on October 12, acknowledges the urgent need for action but notes that “fundamental questions on how the force would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed remain unanswered.” It also warns that the human rights fallout of such a deployment could be severe, and that the UN must be able to “monitor, report on, and respond to” rights abuses.

Arguably the most interesting part of the report, however, relates to the possibility of direct UN involvement in AFISMA. Though the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has helped to shape AFISMA’s strategic concept, the report makes clear that deeper UN involvement in the military operation would be unwise and it warns against providing UN funding or troops. Such a move, it states, would tarnish the UN’s image as an impartial actor, endanger its staff, and restrict its ability to provide humanitarian and peacebuilding support.

These concerns are all entirely valid. The Secretary General should be commended for raising them, and the UN Security Council’s members should give them serious consideration. But even if blue helmets and UN cash are off-limits in Mali, there are things the UN can do to ensure all sides are protecting civilians, preserving humanitarian access, and respecting human rights.

Specifically, the UN Security Council should support comprehensive training in civilian protection and human rights for AFISMA troops, closely monitor the mission’s activities for rights abuses, and require commanders in the field to report regularly to the Council. It should also enforce a clear distinction between humanitarian and military activities in the conflict zone, and demand that AFISMA forces allow humanitarian agencies to do their job. And to ensure that the most vulnerable civilians are protected, the Council must make sure AFISMA’s mandate is in line with existing Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace, and Security and Children and Armed Conflict.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly for the long-term, AFISMA’s strategy must be clearly linked to political efforts that address the concerns of all Malians. In the end, only a political solution can bring Mali out of this crisis, and AFISMA’s operations must reinforce that.

The sad fact is that no military intervention in Mali – even the most well-intentioned – can entirely avoid civilian casualties and suffering. But with clear objectives and careful planning, the mistakes of the past can be avoided and needless suffering can be minimized.

Michael Boyce is Press & Information Officer at Refugees International and Coordinator of the Partnership for Effective Peacekeeping. Refugees International’s new report on humanitarian needs in Mali will be published later this month.