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A soldier with a gun. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET
Image: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

UN troops for Mali

Peter Hille / ael
April 26, 2013

The UN Security Council has given its unanimous approval for a Mali peacekeeping force. As French troops pull out, it will be up to UN troops to restore stability in the war-torn country.


It is mid-April at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in the south of France. One hundred French paratroopers are taking their bags and backpacks from the baggage carousels. For them, the military mission in Mali is over. The majority of the returnees had been fighting in the Ifoghas mountains, a stronghold of Islamist groups in northern Mali. The aim of the rebels was to take control of the whole country and establish an Islamic state.

The 100 paratroopers were the first to withdraw from Mali. By mid-2013, according to French President Hollande, about half of the nearly 4,000 soldiers, who have been in Mali since January, will be back in France. French troops,  together with soldiers from ECOWAS and Chad, have driven the Islamist groups out of the big cities of northern Mali. However, some of the fighters have retreated to rough terrain such as the Ifoghas mountains.

Stabilization mission

From July 1st, 2013, France will pass the baton to a UN force. The resolution proposed by France was adopted by the UN Security Council  on Thursday (25.04.2013) in New York. The current military mission in Mali was officially described as an African-led mission (AFISMA). But the majority of troops who planned and carried out the military operation were French .

From this summer, the combined military mission will be transformed into a UN peacekeeping mission called MINUSMA (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali). This will be the eighth UN peacekeeping operation in Africa and it has a one year mandate.

A soldier wearing the UN blue helmet with a UN truck in the background EPA/STUART PRICE
The UN peacekeeping force will take over from French troops in MaliImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"This is clearly not a mission that enforces peace, this is not an anti-terrorist mission," Herve Ladsous, UN representative peacekeeping missions said.

"This is a mission of stabilization. At the beginning we will send a large number of vehicles, tents, generators and other equipment to Mali."

The UN resolution also stipulates that before the start of the mission, the security situation in the country should be assessed. The Security Council could, therefore, still halt the deployment of the blue helmets.

In New York, Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said his country was already at the end of the bloody conflict and was moving into a phase of stabilization. That's why the main goals of the UN mission were "to protect the civilian population, re-establish administrative structures in the northern region, address the humanitarian crisis, organize elections, enable refugees to return and facilitate the resumption of normalcy  in the north of Mali. "

In addition, the UN peacekeepers, according to the mandate, should also protect the country's cultural heritage. Islamist rebels caused a global outcry in May 2012 when they began to destroy World Heritage sites in Timbuktu.

Challenge for humanitarian agencies

So there are many tasks ahead for peacekeepers in Mali. And it is this diversity of tasks that  representatives of non-governmental organizations are worried about. Among them is Frank Dörner, a managing director of the German section of Doctors Without Borders which is working in the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu.

Speaking to DW, Dörner said "when humanitarian work is packaged up with everything else, that makes our work as an aid organization much more difficult."  Doctors Without Borders needs to be accepted as a non-political and neutral player in northern Mali's conflict.  "The combination of military intervention and humanitarian work imakes communication between us and our partners very difficult," Dörner said.

The German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed the Security council's decision. Germany is not participating in the current combat operations but is providing logistical support for French troops and training Malian soldiers. In a press release, Westerwelle said the German government would hold consultations in the coming weeks, to identify how Germany could contribute to the UN Stabilization Mission.

UN peacekeepers in Congo. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
UN peacekeepers in Congo were criticized for failing to protect civiliansImage: Getty Images

Will it work without the French?

The mandate of the planned UN mission is robust. The blue helmets are allowed to use weapons to protect the civilian population. Marco Wyss, a security expert at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, told DW that "the mandate is clear, the only question is,rather, will these troops have the ability and the will to protect the civilian population? That was also the UN mission mandate in DR Congo. The mandate was very clear but the civilians were not adequately protected."

11,200 peacekeepers and 1,440 police officers will be operating in Mali. "The African soldiers already there will simply become blue helmets," says Wyss. "But in addition  more troops will come in to boost the personnel reservoir."

 Herve Ladsous hinted that French troops will continue to help the new UN mission in Mali as the situation is not yet stable. There is agreement that in any "severe and serious situations" French soldiers can come to the aid of the UN force. The French parliament has already decided to leave 1,000 soldiers in Mali until the end of 2013. After that, according to the present plan, the last French combat unit could return to France.

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