A group of unidentified gunmen attacked the United Nations peacekeeping force headquarters in Timbuktu, Mali on Monday. This attack resulted in the deaths of five security guards, one contractor, and one gendarmerie.
While the UN’s mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, has seen frequent attacks by Islamist militants targeting its peacekeepers, a group has not claimed responsibility for this attack. The onslaught in Timbuktu was preceded by an attack in Douentza, which involved the killing of a Malian soldier and UN peacekeeper. This is the ninth death of a peacekeeper this year and more than 100 peacekeepers have died during the mission that has been active since 2013, designating MINUSMA as the “world’s deadliest active UN deployment.”
The UN’s Security Council condemned the attack in the “strongest terms” and labelled it a “terrorist attack.” The Deputy Spokesman for the UN Security-General, Farhan Haq, said in a statement, “The Security General stresses that attacks targeting United Nations peacekeepers may constitute war crimes under international law.” He added: “The Security-General commends the important efforts that Mali and the other countries of the Group of Five for the Sahel are devoting in combating terrorism and violent extremism and promoting peace and development in the region.”
France launched the G5 Sahel force, comprised of 5,000 men from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, to counter Al-Qaeda-linked and jihadist groups. However, this has not been made operational. The force’s main task is to generate peace and stability in the region.
El-Ghassim Wane, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, told the 15-member Security Council in New York, “Addressing the root causes of instability in the Sahel requires going beyond military action and tackling the governance gap, chronic poverty and unemployment, climate change and financing for development.”
Although the G5 force will help increase security in Mali and surrounding areas, there’s a lack of funding. The EU has put forth 57 million dollars and French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a contribution of nine million dollars. However, the force will need more funding in order to run for future years. Macron is seeking additional funds from Germany, the US, and the UK.
Although the G5 force may use violence, the UN peacekeeping operation will face the challenge of remaining a neutral party amidst the harsh and dangerous landscape.
In 2012, jihadist groups took control of cities in Northern Mali, such as Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, and began destroying Muslim shrines and manuscripts. This prompted French military intervention. A year later, the UN’s mission began and now has approximately 12,000 troops. The extremist groups have mostly been driven out of the northern region after the Malian government signed a peace deal with Tuareg and Arab rebel groups in 2015. The UN was originally sent to Mali to train the country’s army and incite a peace deal, but shortly after, Islamist groups began targeting peacekeepers in Northern and Central Mali.
The UN Security Council has only allowed MINUSMA, out of its 15 other active peacekeeping missions, “to use ‘all necessary means’ to carry out its mandate within its capabilities and areas of deployment,” but has also decided “MINUSMA’s strategic priority would be to support the parties to the Mali conflict in implementing the 2015 peace agreement.”
The UN has facilitated meetings between militant groups and the government, but as they respond to the attacks from Islamist groups, their neutral stance becomes increasingly unclear. Critics have said that if the UN uses more aggression in part with counter-terrorism, it will be less effective in mediation. However, the UN’s role in Mali also sheds light on how the UN can function in areas under the threat of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, as well as the possibility of it moving into other war zones, such as Libya and Syria, in the future.
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