Europe, Mali and UN Peacekeeping

France is continuing offensive operations in Mali, but has indicated that it wants to start handing over security duties to a United Nations peacekeeping force in the coming months. This would probably involve putting some of the African troops already in Mali in blue helmets. But the UN will also need to find additional units to support the new mission. A credible UN force would need to deploy somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 soldiers. On the basis of comparable UN missions elsewhere, a force of this size requires 3 or 4 engineering units, a similar number of field hospitals and 15-20 helicopters. UN officials may also ask for some surveillance drones to help them scan Mali for continued rebel activities.

Where will all these troops and assets come from? As I recently argued in the European Voice, “EU countries could plug some of those gaps with a relatively light-weight package of military support units.”  France did not need other EU members to put boots on the ground during the first phase of the campaign, but the UN could certainly do with some European help. This would be unusual: European troops typically add up to less than 1% of UN forces in Africa. (One recent exception was Chad, where some units deployed under the EU in 2008 were transferred to UN command in 2009).  

European governments have, however, accepted that they have a direct interest in stabilizing Mali so that it does not become a base for Islamist terrorists. So they have a clearer security rationale for contributing troops there than they do for UN missions elsewhere in Africa, like Liberia or South Sudan. 

Some EU members also believe that there is a longer-term logic for getting involved in UN missions in Africa. As European troops come home from Afghanistan, defense planners want to show that they still need expeditionary capabilities. They also want to ensure that soldiers continue to get experience in real operations, not just training exercises. Getting involved in UN missions could be a good way to keep European personnel busy and sharp (that said, some European officials fear that troops with experience of kinetic warfare in Afghanistan might need to be retrained to adapt to lower-tempo UN operations).

This argument appeals more in some EU capitals than others. The Nordic countries have already stated that they want to offer the UN more assistance. This reflects their own long experience of deploying peacekeepers during the Cold War. Ireland, which shares that experience, would like to see the EU as a whole do more for the UN. This was the topic of a conference in Dublin last week arranged by the Irish ministry of defense as part of its EU presidency program (I was there, and made the case for going to Mali). Alan Shatter, Ireland’s minister for defense opened proceedings with a tough message for the EU:

Obviously we are all facing significant financial constraints and major cuts in defense budgets. That said, I am very interested to explore the other reasons why EU Member States are reticent to contribute military forces to UN Peacekeeping and Crisis Management Operations. I am of the view that, notwithstanding the financial situation the EU faces today in contributing to UN peacekeeping, and in peacekeeping and crisis management generally, it is not primarily a lack of financial resources, nor is it a lack of personnel, nor a lack of capabilities. I think the issue we face today is a lack of political will and the commitment to use the resources, the personnel and the capabilities we have, for a common good.

Can the EU overcome this problem of political will? As some participants at the conference noted, many European soldiers and citizens are simply weary of expeditionary operations of any kind, whether they are under UN, EU or NATO command.  On balance, it is probable that only a minority of EU members will be willing to do significantly more for the UN in the foreseeable future, with Ireland, the Scandinavians and possibly a few other powers – including Austria – in the lead.  Even members of this potential vanguard have qualms about issues such as UN medical facilities and command and control systems.

Now is the time to address and resolve some of these qualms. As I argued in Dublin, the Irish should use their presidency to launch a “pathfinder group” of like-minded ambassadors in Brussels to (i) create diplomatic momentum for greater EU participation in UN operations, possibly starting with Mali; and (ii) try to clarify their shared concerns about UN missions and see what can be done to fix these problems. A parallel group of ambassadors in New York could follow up with officials at UN headquarters, although there is now also a small but efficient UN peacekeeping liaison office in Brussels that can help out too.

Like it or not, episodes such as the Mali crisis are likely to stimulate further EU-UN cooperation in future. Next week Hervé Ladsous - the French official who runs the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations - will attend an informal meeting of EU defense ministers convened by the Irish. NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will also attend. Ministers will doubtless hope for juicy tales of the fight against the Islamists in Mali from their French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian. Once the war stories are out of the way, the ministers should settle down to a more serious strategic discussion of the sort of military help the EU can give the UN, and whether the EU really has the political will to give it.

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Feb 11, 2013
Richard Gowan
West Africa