British troops to join the UN’s deadliest peacekeeping mission as Mali descends into increasing violence

By Imogen Smith


BRITISH troops are set to deploy to an active war zone in Mali in support of the UN’s peacekeeping mission later this year.

250 British troops will be deployed in a three-year commitment to the north-eastern city of Gao, close to the Menaka region which has seen a recent upsurge in violence.

The UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was established on 25 April 2013 by the UN Security Council after a 2012 uprising in the north of the country.  

There have been 209 UN peacekeeper fatalities to-date making MINUSMA the UN’s deadliest mission.  

The majority of deaths have been amongst soldiers from Chad, raising questions about the distribution of more dangerous tasks such as escorting convoys.

Two UN peacekeepers were killed last week when a UN convoy was targeted in the north of the country travelling between the towns of Tesslit and Gao.

On Monday, 24 Malian soldiers were killed in an ambush by jihadists in the centre of the country, near the border with Mauritania.

The UN Security Council met on Thursday last week to discuss the future mandate of MINUSMA, which is set to be renewed at the end of the month.

An MoD Spokesperson told Redaction Politics on Thursday: “Against the background of growing instability in the Sahel, the UK will provide a specialist reconnaissance capability to support one of the UN’s largest peacekeeping operations, whose role is to protect civilians, support the establishment of sustainable peace in Mali and reduce the spill over of conflict to neighbouring states.

“We are working closely with the UN to plan our increased contribution to peacekeeping operations in West Africa and remain committed to deploying within 2020.

“Our deployment is part of the UK’s wider commitment to promoting development and stability, and combating the growing threat of violent extremism, in order to prevent the spread of conflict and protect UK interests and those of our partners in West Africa.”

MINUSMA’s Force Commander, Lieutenant General Dennis Gyllensporre, told Redaction Politics: “The incoming UK unit will play an important role for the fulfilment of our mandate. It will enhance our ability to respond timely and robustly to emerging threats, in particular to protect civilians.”

The UK is already involved in the area – personnel from RAF Odiham have been deployed in non-combat roles in Mali since 2018 with RAF Chinoooks contributing logistical capability to the French-led operation.

The French-led Operation Barkhane – a counterterrorism operation alongside the G5 Sahel countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – launched in August 2014, though the French initially started their involvement in January 2013.

European countries have been particularly concerned by the number of migrants travelling from Mali to escape continuing violence and poverty.  

Arms flooded into northern Mali after the 2011 NATO-led mission removed Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, alongside returning fighters who had joined the Libyan war.

An uprising of the traditionally nomadic Tuareg people in 2012 demanded independence for the north of the country as the state of Azawad.

The Tuareg rebellion, led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), utilised the arms from Libya and succeeded in driving the Malian army out of the north of the country, with the MNLA declaring independence on 6 April 2012.

On 22 March 2012, President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a coup in the capital Bamako by soldiers returning south over his handling of the crisis in the north.

The MNLA initially held an alliance with rising Islamist group Ansar Dine to control the north.

When this alliance collapsed in the second half of 2012, large swathes of the north were taken from the MNLA in fierce clashes with Islamist groups Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mojao) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  

The African-led Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), the French-led coalition and MINUSMA were launched to assist in fighting the Islamist insurgency and the MNLA reduced their demands from independence to autonomy.

A peace agreement was signed in 2015 in Algiers by the Malian government, the Coordination of Movements of Azawad and a range of pro-government armed groups in the north.  

Islamist violence and fighting endures in the north, however, and MINUSMA continues to face a difficult and dangerous situation there.

The situation in the centre of the country has deteriorated drastically in the past two years, with the Mopti region in particular now embroiled in severe violence along ethnic lines.

Increasing population growth, the shifting of the Sahara, and a growing scarcity of potable water due to climate change have steadily increased tensions between the pastoral Fulani and the agriculturalist Dogon people, who have historically competed over resources in the area.

Islamist groups and arms supplies moved into these regions from the north, sparking tensions into violence.

On 14 February this year 35 villagers were massacred in Ogossagou, the same village in which 150 Fulani villagers were massacred in March 2019.

The March 2019 massacre was reportedly carried out by Dogon fighters in retaliation for an Islamist attack the previous week, with the Fulani perceived as supporting the Islamists.

Retaliation attacks between tribes and villages have resulted in a spiral of horrific violence and the formation of heavily armed self-defence militias in lieu of effective government protection.

Children in particular are in need of protection in both the north and central regions – more than half of Mali’s population of 19 million are under the age of 18.

Over 2.3 million children are currently in need of protection assistance in the Central Sahel region according UNICEF, with one million in Mali alone.

More than 1,100 schools are closed due to insecurity, mostly in the central Mopti region, and child soldiers are being used by armed groups.

Amanda Brydon, Save the Children Conflict & Humanitarian Advocacy Advisor told Redaction Politics: “Currently we’re seeing child protection occupy only 0.3% of most mission budgets.

“The UK mission is going to be for long range mechanised infantry reconnaissance, going out to gather information, so they’re going to be at the frontline of seeing the violations that are taking place – it is really important for those troops to be trained in children in armed conflict obligations and what the particular risks for children in Mali are.

“There’s a real role for the UK I think, particularly now they’re sending troops, to be advocating for that child protection expertise.”

An MoD spokesperson told Redaction Politics: “A number of personnel deploying have undertaken specialist Human Security training. This includes training in gender issues, children in armed conflict, women, peace and security, protection of cultural artefacts, cultural related sexual violence, protection of civilians and human trafficking.

“All personnel deploying receive annual mandatory training across a range of Human Security issues, this encompasses the treatment of all civilians including women and children.”

MINUSMA’s Force Commander, Lieutenant General Dennis Gyllensporre, told Redaction Politics: “All incoming units receive training on Child Protection as a part of their induction training.

“Before deployment, units undergo extensive national training, including Human Security. This training refers to civilians in situation of conflict and includes dealing with vulnerable children.

“In preparation of the UK unit we have shared our polices and regulations, as well as having had fruitful discussion on their implementation.”

At the UN meeting to discuss the future of MINUSMA’s mandate in this complex and difficult landscape, the US and Belgium raised concern that implementation of the 2015 Algiers Agreement has not been effective.

US Ambassador Kelly Craft to the UN told the Security Council: “We must be clear-eyed about the pattern of failure by the signatory parties to implement the 2015 Algiers accord.”

She continued by saying that most of the benchmarks set by the council in last year’s resolution renewing the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali have “not been achieved.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recommended the renewal of the mission, however, stating in a report to the Security Council that: “The presence of the mission remains crucial, and its mandate remains relevant, given the complexity of the challenges.”

Martin Butcher, Policy Advisor on Conflict and Arms for Oxfam, told Redaction Politics: “From our perspective it’s not really a matter of which troops get sent, it’s that the mission itself is very flawed.

“There is an increasing drive at the United Nations and at the European Union, and in leading states in those organisations, to treat all security situations across the Sahel as purely terrorism issues that have to be dealt with by military counterterrorism policies. An awful lot of nuance gets lost and the potential effectiveness of the mission gets lost.

“From an Oxfam perspective, we need to tease out all of these problems, address all of the base problems most importantly, and then provide for security, not in a Western-led militarised response but in a local population-led response.

“In the central region you have an increasingly heavily armed local population with young men with nothing to do. From our perspective, preventing more arms getting into the area, taking away as many of the arms there as possible, and putting a lot of effort into community level peacebuilding and resource sharing efforts is going to be absolutely essential.”

It is agreed, however, that MINUSMA does play a vital role in providing a level of security that would otherwise leave civilians even less protected.

Corinne Dufka, Sahel Director for Human Rights Watch, told Redaction Politics: “The responsibility for protecting civilians lies first and foremost with the national authorities, however MINUSMA has made significant strides in protecting vulnerable communities from harm.  The UN mission is one of the world’s most dangerous and complicated in the world.  Its civilian protection-mandate is challenged by difficult geography, a plethora of armed groups with shifting and often-ambiguous alliances, and inadequate means, notably air assets.  

“Mali’s problems are human rights and governance problems. The ongoing crisis is underscored by long-standing bad governance, manifested by endemic corruption, weak rule of law and often-predatory practices by civil servants and the security forces.

“These problems require much more than a military solution – rather sustained attention to improving the government’s ability to protect civilians in a neutral fashion and to improve the judiciary, especially given the rising number of atrocities committed by armed groups of all stripes.”

The situation in Mali is complex and requires a similarly nuanced effort on several fronts to reduce the violence and risk to civilians.

The UN mission’s mandate, despite its detractors, is set to be renewed at the end of the month.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN, said to the Security Council last week: “Though MINUSMA’s mandate – yes it is complex and the scale of the challenge makes this the UN’s most expensive peacekeeping operation – but we must recognise positively that we are making progress.

“As we review that progress and agree the way ahead together, we must remind ourselves that MINUSMA is not itself a permanent solution, but a route to a means to an end, to a more sustainable and long-standing solution.”

The upcoming British troop deployment shows not only the UK’s commitment to supporting the UN peacekeeping mission, but also its desire to forge stronger ties with France and the international community after its loss of EU influence post-Brexit.

It is vital that the UK utilises its involvement with the UN mission to push for further humanitarian funding and to emphasise the importance of civilian protection in the international response.  

MINUSMA cannot answer all the problems in Mali – and a concerted effort to tackle the underlying issues at the heart of the conflict must be made – but without the peacekeeping mission the situation for civilians would undoubtedly worsen.

*****

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Featured Image: Pixabay

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