Ignoring Sahel Region Will Have ‘Disastrous Implications’ for West Africa, Peace Operations Chief Warns Security Council
The United Nations will assess, in early 2021, the support provided by its peacekeeping mission in Mali to the joint counter-terrorism force for Africa’s Sahel region, the head of the Organization’s peace operations told the Security Council during a 16 November videoconference meeting.
“We should be mindful of the disastrous implications of the security situation for the rest of the West African region if the situation in the Sahel is not adequately addressed,” said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, in his briefing on the Secretary-General’s report on the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (document S/2020/1074).
The assessment will highlight the progress and challenges in implementing the enhanced support mandate given to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), he said, noting that the conclusions and recommendations will be reflected on the Secretary-General’s second quarterly report on MINUSMA.
Mr. Lacroix emphasized that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, counter‑terrorism efforts in the Sahel have intensified, with the increased coordination of security players on the ground allowing for a more visible presence of defence and security forces in the region, as well as stepped‑up pressure on terrorist groups. The joint force — established by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, known as the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel), in 2017 — remains a vital part of security responses to address extremist armed groups, as well as other cross-border challenges, including trafficking in persons, illicit goods, weapons and drugs, he added.
Since the last report of the Secretary-General, he continued, the joint force has continued to rise in its operational strengths, with Operation Sama 1 leading to significant losses on the part of terrorist armed groups. Operation Sama 2, launched on 1 August, is expected to last until the end of January 2021, with equally high hopes for a positive impact.
Going forward, he said, strengthening the joint force’s police component would be an important step to improving oversight of military operations, linking them to State‑building and supporting justice sector and prison reform, as well as efforts under the human rights compliance framework.
Turning to the implementation of the human rights and international humanitarian law compliance framework of the joint force and the human rights due diligence policy, he said that, while essential work remains pending, the joint force has taken significant steps in the right direction.
The provision of life support consumables by MINUSMA has proven essential to sustain the joint force, notably during the rainy season, he noted. Further to the Security Council’s authorization of MINUSMA to engage commercial contractors to deliver life support consumables to the joint force contingents operating outside of Mali, the Mission began making appropriate arrangements to implement such support, including the advancement of the procurement process. However, the current support model presents challenges, including unpredictable funding and the quarterly planning cycle that makes detailed needs assessments difficult.
The representative of Mali, also speaking on behalf of the four other members of the G5 Sahel, welcomed increasing international cooperation with the region, as well as the growing operational capacity of the bloc’s joint force. In recent months, its troops have carried out numerous operations, neutralizing dozens of terrorist fighters, destroying terrorist bases and combating trafficking in drugs, weapons and human beings. However, he said, the region’s security situation remains a source of concern, and a security-based response alone cannot guarantee peace. In that vein, he outlined the Group’s various development projects and investments, underscoring its belief that security matters, poverty, lack of governance, exclusion, economic challenges and the impacts of climate change must be dealt with holistically.
“We’re working to improve the lives of our population, especially women and children,” he said. Calling upon all the region’s international partners to speed up their contributions to the G5 Sahel and its projects, he welcomed support from the Alliance for the Sahel in particular. Turning to the human rights situation, he emphasized the Group’s commitment to carry out all counter-terrorism operations in strict respect for human rights. He welcomed the outcome of the round tables convened in September by the European Union, Germany and Denmark — during which participants pledged $1.7 billion in humanitarian support to the Sahel region — while calling for further support, a robust MINUSMA mandate under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations and sustainable funding for the G5 Sahel joint force to be provided through the United Nations regular budget.
Also briefing on the Council was Koen Vervaeke, Managing Director for Africa, European External Action Service, who said that, despite the massive support of the international community and the significant investment by the European Union, the situation in the Sahel remains worrying. The European Union continues to remain mobilized while adapting its approach. At the sixth ministerial meeting between the Union and the G5 Sahel, participants had a first exchange of views on the ongoing review of the Union’s Sahel strategy: its future approach is intended to be more ambitious and produce concrete results. The new approach centres on support for genuinely inclusive governance, especially of women and young people.
Citing the lack of adequate means of transport for the joint force, he stressed that the Union provided more than €254.4 million to the force, enabling the delivery of 46 armoured personnel carriers, equipped with radios. The civil political transition in Mali constitutes an opportunity to reform modes of governance, including the return to constitutional order, the fight against impunity and corruption, security sector reform and the restoration of State authority to the entire territory. The implementation of the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali will be more priority than ever.
Robert Keith Rae (Canada), speaking in his capacity as Chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, said that, while some progress has been made in recent years in the Sahel region — including in the fight against terrorism — serious challenges remain. Those include a deteriorating security and humanitarian situation, rising levels of displacement, social and economic inequalities, environmental degradation and such cross-border risks as terrorist group movement and trafficking in small arms, light weapons and drugs. Rising tensions between pastoralists and farmers, high levels of youth unemployment, gender inequality, climate change impacts and the recent unprecedented peaks of food insecurity also posed serious threats.
“Many of these challenges have been exacerbated by the impacts of the COVID‑19 pandemic,” he said. For peacebuilding activities to be truly sustainable, all human rights violations and abuses must also be fully investigated, and those responsible held accountable. Spotlighting the challenges faced by women in the subregion, including sexual and gender-based violence, he advocated for better access to credit by women entrepreneurs as a necessary condition for sustainable development. “These are complex challenges which require a comprehensive approach to address root causes of conflict in the Sahel, prevent further escalation of conflict, build and sustain peace and promote sustainable development,” he said, also noting the need for stronger regional approaches with a focus on cross-border challenges and more engagement with regional partners.
For its part, he said, the Peacebuilding Commission has welcomed the recalibrated United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel and its United Nations support plan. Among other things, the Commission uses its convening power to mobilize support for the implementation of the United Nations integrated strategy, collaborating with the Sahelian countries, G5 Sahel, African Union, European Union and others. It also welcomed recent contributions to the Peacebuilding Fund in the amount of $137 million across 10 countries, representing 25 per cent of the Fund’s resources between 2017 and 2019. The Commission is also addressing the growing humanitarian needs and the impact of COVID-19 containment measures in Burkina Faso and stands committed to helping the country consolidate peacebuilding gains and address the pandemic’s socioeconomic impacts.
Calling for additional resources to help countries of the Sahel counter the coronavirus more broadly, he welcomed the Council’s recent request for joint reporting by the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and the Regional Sustainable Development Group to the Peacebuilding Commission. Partnerships with international financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank are also crucial for the subregion, particularly in the context of recovery from the pandemic, he said.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members exchanged views on ways to effectively support the joint force, including the establishment of a dedicated support office funded by assessed contributions from Member States. Several delegations called on the members of the joint force to respect the rule of law and protect human rights, urging investigations allegedly committed by them against civilians.
France’s representative, noting his country’s support for the Coalition for the Sahel, said that progress against terrorism has been made by that group. He reported that the French-led Operation Barkhane force, in cooperation with regional countries, has taken out several terrorist operatives. To complement such security activity, however, the proactive political commitment of the regional countries to launch services in all areas is needed. In remote areas, several ad-hoc army units will collaborate on that effort. As the reestablishment of rule of law is also critical, efforts to end impunity for human rights violations must be accelerated, including attention to the members of the joint force. In view of the worsening humanitarian crisis, he pointed to a need for increased donor support to efforts to empower women and youth and address climate change. Noting the contributions of the European Union, he also highlighted the need to end attacks against humanitarian workers and other obstacles to aid. To improve support to the joint force, he called for full implementation of the mechanism that allows MINUSMA to enter into contracts for the force’s material needs. He stressed that the joint force needs far-reaching support, to which the Council can make a significant contribution.
Niger’s representative, speaking also on behalf of South Africa, Tunisia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, welcomed the inclusion of the perspective of members of the joint force in the Secretary-General’s report. Noting the severe challenges in the Sahel region, he stressed the need for a holistic approach comprising security and sustainable development. Terrorism must be addressed as a priority. Recalling the integrated Sahel strategy, he said that the priority investment programmes remain critical. Financing quick-impact projects and providing credible alternatives to recruitment for young people was now most critical. Given the deterioration of the humanitarian situation, exacerbated by COVID-19, he welcomed the October round table that reassessed all humanitarian interventions, mobilized funds and identified United Nations agencies responsible for each sector.
Security threats remain of great concern, he said, as does intercommunity violence. In that regard, he welcomed the increased operationalization of the joint force. Efforts to deploy police components and plans for deploying a Chadian unit and an African Union force were also positive signs. Welcoming measures by the Government of Mali and MINUSMA to restore national authority throughout that country, he said accelerated deployment of national security forces is now crucial. He welcomed a mechanism for following up on civilian victims in that country. Stressing that international efforts in the Sahel have not been enough, he called for a dedicated support office for the joint force funded by assessed contributions from Member States. Due respect for the implementation of MINUSMA’s mandate was needed, as the Mission must focus on the core elements of its mandate. He called for Council consideration of the Sahel to be pragmatic, particularly in tackling what he called “the forces of evil”, which he warned could otherwise extend their reach to other regions.
Belgium’s representative expressed her country’s determination to support the fight against terrorism in the Sahel as part of the European Union’s efforts and bilaterally. To contribute to the region’s security, stability and resilience, her delegation favours a comprehensive approach to find a way out of the crisis. At the ministerial round table on the Sahel on 24 October, her country’s minister announced a contribution of €8 million. Highlighting that half of the population in the Sahel is under the age of 15, she expressed concerns that tens of millions of children do not have access to education. They could be exposed to recruitment and sexual violence by extremists. Voicing support for the joint force, she stressed the need to also address political and governance crises, as terrorists feed on these weaknesses. The joint force must respect the rule of law and comply with the human rights framework as these are essential in combating terrorism.
The Dominican Republic’s representative said that the Sahel continues to face complex security challenges, but his delegation remains optimistic about the pace of military operations by the joint force. A lasting solution calls for a holistic, comprehensive and integrated approach, he said, stressing the need to address underlining causes of conflict, including underdevelopment, exclusion and climate change, as well as the need to empower youth and women. Urging donor countries to increase their official development assistance (ODA) and take innovative relief measures, he also asked for fair access to COVID-19 vaccines. In this vein, the role of World Health Organization (WHO) and the private sector companies is important, he added.
Estonia’s representative joined other speakers in voicing his deep concern about the continued terrorist attacks against national, regional and international security forces in the Sahel region. “It is of utmost importance to concentrate all efforts on creating favourable conditions for the return of the State and security presence, including the police and the judicial presence,” he said. Praising the work of the joint force, as well as the coordination and mobilization roles of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), he said Estonia contributes personnel to MINUSMA, the French-led Operation Barkhane and the European Union training mission in Mali, as well as financial support for the bloc’s Trust Fund for Africa. Estonia is also part of the recently launched Task Force Takuba, operating in the Liptako-Gourma area. He underlined the need to investigate all human rights violations and hold perpetrators to account, emphasizing that no peace can be achieved unless the root causes of instability are addressed “actively and in earnest”.
Germany’s representative declared: “This is not the moment to become weaker in our efforts to create stability in the Sahel region.” Voicing concern about the security situation, he encouraged the continued ownership by the G5 Sahel countries over their joint force, while praising ongoing bilateral support. He voiced support for MINUSMA, while noting that Germany is ready to consider new ways to mobilize United Nations support for the joint force. Voicing regret over the continued deterioration of the humanitarian situation across the region, he echoed other speakers who have described it as standing at a “breaking point”. It was against that backdrop that the Central Sahel Conference was recently convened, garnering $1.7 billion in new support pledges. However, efforts are also needed to address development challenges, strengthen governance and the rule of law, build trust in State institutions and tackle the underlying causes of conflict. He also drew attention to efforts to combat the impacts of climate change, which already disproportionately affect the Sahel region.
Viet Nam’s representative, also speaking for Indonesia, reiterated those countries’ support for the G5 Sahel joint force as an important security response to the phenomenon of terrorism. Across the Sahel region, people also suffer from ongoing intercommunal violence, organized crime, high rates of food insecurity, displacement and the adverse effects of climate change. Moreover, there has been an increase in the number of terrorist attacks against civilians, peacekeepers and national troops, putting people’s access to basic services at risk. He underlined the importance of international support for the joint force, which will enable it to protect its troops and carry out its mandate. More commitment is needed from the international community on humanitarian assistance, he said, also calling for greater investment in social services, economic development and efforts to combat the many challenges posed by COVID-19.
The United Kingdom’s representative said his country looked forward to deploying to MINUSMA in December in support of its mandate to protect civilians and progress towards sustainable peace. Against the backdrop of deteriorating security, he commended the G5 Sahel member States for increasing operational capability and effectiveness of their joint force. He encouraged all partners to fulfil their commitments to support the force. He requested, however, more detail on the force’s measures of success, including an update on how it is working with the United Nations country team on creating an enabling environment for development, and for monitoring the return of national armed forces and local authorities. He stressed that governance, sustainable development and peacebuilding are the building blocks for stability in the Sahel. Reiterating the importance of compliance with human rights and humanitarian law, he urged all G5 Sahel Governments to ensure that the human rights diligence policy is implemented and that any allegations of violations are investigated, with perpetrators brought to justice.
China’s representative stressed the need for the international community to work together to find political solutions in hotspots, hailing ECOWAS for its role in resolving the crisis in Mali. He also called on the international community to support the electoral processes in some Sahel countries. Noting the positive progress made by the joint force in regional security, he said that now is not a time to relax and asked for more predictable funding for the joint force. The humanitarian situation is troubling, he said, stressing the need for a tailored response by the international community. On COVID-19, he said the situation has been eased in the region due to strict measures in place, but there is a risk of resurgence. His country has sent medical supplies to the region and will continue to share its experiences in combating the pandemic, he said, also calling for an early, fair access to vaccines.
The representative of the United States, echoing security concerns expressed by other speakers, agreed that coordination by the Sahel Governments is crucial to improving the stability and the prosperity of the region and that the joint force and its civilian component are key to addressing some of the root causes of the conflict. His country remains committed to bilaterally supporting the joint force with equipment, training, supplies and advisers. United Nations assessed contributions are not a viable source of funding. In the near term, Washington, D.C., expects to see the joint force fully leverage MINUSMA’s support mechanism, but the Mission is only part of the solution and it is unlikely to continue indefinitely at its current level. He called for a full investigation of five alleged cases of serious human rights violations by the G5 Sahel battalion operating in northern Burkina Faso. He urged Mali’s transitional government to swiftly implement the principles of the Algiers Agreement and hold free and fair elections within 18 months.
The Russian Federation’s representative, noting the worrisome assessment of threats in the Sahel, said that States of the region need to tackle radicalization while improving the humanitarian situation. Welcoming improvements in the operation of the joint force, including coordination mechanisms with the partners in the region, she called for further such coordination. In that regard, she expressed hope that the African Union plans will come to fruition. She stressed that MINUSMA’s mandate must be strictly implemented according to Council resolutions. In addition, she called for further international support to the joint force.
Mr. LaCroix, making closing remarks, welcomed the emphasis on coordination between all actors. MINUSMA, he added, is making its best efforts to implement the new modalities for support for the joint force, but is lacking the full amount of voluntary funds needed for that purpose. He therefore appealed for contribution to close an estimated $13 million gap, around half of which should be covered by a European Union pledge. Such support is essential for the continuing success of the force, he stressed.