The last few weeks have seen a flurry of new developments in the crisis in Mali. While many stakeholders focus on the immediate objective of neutralizing Islamist militants' ability to control Mali and destabilize the region, the international community must also turn its attention to an eventual transition to peacebuilding.
In early January, an alliance of Islamist militants in control of northern Mali advanced south and captured the strategically important town of Konna. In response to a request from the Malian government, France launched military air strikes and ground operations to repel the insurgents. This unanticipated turn of events led to the sudden deployment of AFISMA, a UN-mandated, African-led force consisting of troops provided by the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which had previously been scheduled to deploy around September of this year. For now, French air power has halted the Islamist advance and forced the rebels to retreat.
Assuming that all goes well and AFISMA achieves its objectives of recovering the insurgent-occupied regions in the north and stabilizing the country, the mission will need to transition from warfighting to peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities. Neither the Malian government nor AFISMA has the capacity to conduct peacekeeping or peacebuilding on its own, so those efforts will likely fall to the UN. Handovers from regional organization-led warfighting operations to UN-led peace operations have traditionally been difficult and poorly managed due in part to short-term thinking and narrow planning windows. A UN peace operation may be as many as three or four years into the future, but there are several steps that the UN and other international partners could take now to prepare for transition.
As a first step, the UN could begin to conduct joint fact-finding missions and threat assessments with AFISMA. While joint assessments are usually carried out just prior to the transition from a military operation to a peace operation, there are benefits to starting the process earlier. Joint assessments would provide a platform for developing common planning processes between the UN and AFISMA, which could foster effective working relationships important to transition. They could also allow the UN to begin scenario planning now for a future peace operation in Mali, rather than scrambling to gather information shortly before their deployment.
Moreover, UN agencies could provide the humanitarian and development personnel that the AU and ECOWAS lack in order to produce more comprehensive integrated assessments on such issues as food security, protection of civilians concerns and access to justice. Such issues may not seem immediately vital to a warfighting operation but would be important for peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities.
The UN and other international partners could also play an important role in improving the discipline and accountability of AFISMA fighters. ECOWAS in particular earned a poor reputation in past operations. During interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, ECOWAS forces were accused of serious abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL). Similar behavior from AFISMA would not only cause immediate harm to civilians, but could damage the credibility and legitimacy of AFISMA as well as any follow-on UN peace operation.
The EU mission slated to arrive in Mali in February is expected to provide much needed military training and advice on command and control, logistics, and human resources for the Malian armed forces, a measure that could enhance discipline and professionalism and therefore prevent abuses. In addition, the EU mission will provide training on IHL, human rights, and the protection of civilians. These are welcome steps as Malian forces have already been accused of abuses including torture and summary executions. The EU or other international partners could provide similar training for AFISMA.
Most importantly, to complement the training, the UN could make sure that IHL, human rights, and protection of civilians principles are followed on the ground by deploying UN monitors alongside troops from AFISMA and the Malian army. Their oversight and ability to report back to the mission, and from there to the government, major donors, and the Security Council about human rights or IHL violations could provide a strong incentive for AFISMA and Malian troops to maintain appropriate behavior.
Moreover, the UN could advise both Mali and AFISMA to think about accountability with respect to any military alliances they may forge.1 Tuareg separatists have announced that they are willing to ally with the Malian government to fight against AQIM; if Mali is considering forming this alliance, it should think now about what accountability measures should be in place for its Tuareg allies. Failure to think through this issue has created serious problems in the past - for example in 1992, during its intervention in Liberia, ECOWAS forces allied with two rebel groups that committed serious human rights abuses. The alliance called into question ECOWAS's motivations and legitimacy, and may have seriously hindered conflict resolution in the longer term.
Finally, the accelerated deployment of AFISMA will likely accelerate the need for UN and bilateral partners' logistical support. In a letter to the Security Council on 22 January, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the Security Council against approving UN logistical support for combat phases of operations in Mali, citing concerns that the provision of logistics support to military forces engaged in an offensive operation could negatively affect the safety of UN civilian staff working in the region.2
Even if the UN does not provide logistical support during this phase of the operation, it should start planning now for the kind of support it will offer as soon as ground conditions allow for a peacekeeping or peacebuilding operation.3 In addition to a logistics funding package, the UN could consider the viability of an office based in Mali to assist with the administration of the funds provided. It may want to look to its field support office in Somalia, UNSOA, which administers the UN's logistical support package to AMISOM, the African Union mission in Somalia, to identify good practices and relevant lessons.
Many of the actions that the UN could take now with regard to joint assessments, accountability and logistics support could have immediate benefits for AFISMA but could also better position the UN to take over ground operations when it transitions to peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Historically, handovers from regional interventions to UN peace operations have been marked by serious complications and sometimes failures. The UN must act now to avoid repeating mistakes in Mali, where stability is a linchpin to regional security.
1 Given that AFISMA was authorized by the UN Security Council, the UN could also assist AFISMA in the implementation of the UN human rights due diligence policy which aspires to mainstream human rights in the work of all United Nations actors supporting non United Nations security entities.
2 This concern is not entirely unfounded; in Somalia, the United Nations Development Program headquarters were attacked in 2008, some argue because of UNDP's support for the Somali police. The UN political office and the UNSOA field support office in Mogadishu have not been the target of attacks, despite the fact that they support the Somali government and AMISOM respectively, both of which are engaged in warfighting.
3 UN peacekeeping operations require the consent of the main parties to a conflict, meaning that the parties are committed to engaging in a political dialogue as part of a peace process and that they accept the presence of the peacekeeping operation to assist with that process. The signing of a peace agreement or ceasefire agreement, though not strictly necessary, is considered an important indicator of the parties' commitment to a political process.