Meanwhile in Mali

Whilst the British media focuses on Russia and Syria, I noticed that this news story largely went under the radar. Of course the events in Syria were serious and the repercussions that followed directly involved British armed forces; however I feel that this story is also incredibly important. Why wasn’t it particularly reported? Stories featuring violence in Africa often fail to get large coverage here, perhaps due to a racial bias, perhaps its because violence in Africa is seen as the norm. Perhaps its because news editors didn’t deem the stories as an interest to the British public.  However, this is a different debate for another time.

The story in question involves a militant attack in Mali earlier this week, where militants disguised as UN peacekeepers struck two bases in Timbuktu.  Using disguises to conceal your intentions is nothing new in warfare, the history of insurgencies is littered with examples of militants blending into their surroundings, disguising themselves amongst the local population. However I feel that disguising yourself as UN peacekeepers is something different.

“Peacekeeping” itself is a pretty abstract term, what exactly constitutes peacekeeping? What actions are permitted in order to keep the peace, is using violence really keeping the peace?

As Bellamy states, “Nothing in the UN charter authorises it to carry out peacekeeping operations, nor is there any official definition of what peacekeeping is or even when the first UN peacekeeping operation took place.”

It wasn’t until 1956 that it truly became apparent just what role the UN could play in diffusing international tensions, when it provided a way out for the UK and France during the Suez Crisis. Sir Anthony Parsons states that the Suez Crisis was:

the first time ever that an armed peacekeeping force (as opposed to unarmed observers) had been deployed; the first time that blue helmets had been used; the first time that the UN had taken military action with the consent of the parties to a conflict, an eventuality not envisaged in the charted. It was the precedent for what has become the most familiar of UN activities.

What the above statement tells us is that there are two separate UN peacekeeping operations, one that involves an armed force and the other that consists of unarmed observers. Again, what constitutes peacekeeping? Do peacekeepers really need weapons?

Well there are several different types of operations that fit under the peacekeeping umbrella; these include, conflict prevention and mediation, peace enforcement, peacemaking, peacekeeping, monitoring and finally peace building. According to this site, peacekeeping missions involved lightly armed UN peacekeeping troops used to monitor compliance with ceasefires and peace agreements.

Therefore historically we have seen peacekeepers armed, but does this mean they are legitimate targets? I argue not. The UN peacekeepers are not the enemy. If we take a look at the UN mandate in Mali, we can see what the intentions of these troops are. The mission in Mali,

would focus on a number of priority tasks, including support to the implementation of the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation; support to the redeployment of the reformed and reconstituted Malian Defence and Security Forces in the centre and north of the country; the protection of civilians, including against asymmetric threats; and countering asymmetric attacks in active defence of its mandate.

As we can see, the mission of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali is to maintain the status quo, ensuring that the peace treaty is adhered to and vitally, to protect citizens. The UN peacekeepers are therefore not the enemy.  Thus I feel that this story should have taken a greater prominence within the news cycle and hope it doesn’t represent a growing trend in conflict zones.

Article by Joshua McNeill

Photograph; UN news

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