Why the end of Operation Presence couldn’t come at a worse time for the UN in Mali

The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is at a critical juncture, making Canada’s refusal to fill a logistical gap even more disappointing, argues Ousmane Diallo.

By: /
9 April, 2019
Armoured vehicles for MINUSMA are convoyed from Gao to Kidal, Mali, in February 2017. MINUSMA/Sylvain Liechti, handout via REUTERS
Ousmane Aly Diallo
By: Ousmane Aly Diallo
Ph.D. candidate and doctoral fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University.

On July 31, Operation Presence, Canada’s year-long contribution to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), will come to an end.

Ottawa has denied the UN’s repeated requests for the extension of the mission until October 2019, when the Romanian contingent that will deliver similar services is expected to take over. The three-month gap due to planning challenges between troop-contributing countries (TCCs) means that the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission in the world’s ability to facilitate medical evacuations and transport blue helmets will be severely hampered.

MINUSMA is expected to do a lot with increasingly reduced means. Overwhelmed by a jihadist insurgency in Mali’s northern and central regions, the mission has also to contend with a delayed peace process, and the frustration of local and international partners. The request for the extension of Operation Presence in order to fill a critical gap is no doubt low on its list of priorities, but Canada should worry about the signal it is sending about its commitment to global security, when the scale of the mission and the challenges in Mali are taken into perspective.

There is a dissonance that the government needs to address. The emphatic declarations on the importance of UN peacekeeping and multilateralism is belied by its reluctance to commit when pressed upon by bilateral partners; a paradox that ultimately reflects the lower priority of UN peacekeeping in Canada’s foreign policy interests. Support for the UN mission in Mali was expected following the election of the Liberal government, based on campaign rhetoric on the necessity of multilateralism and returning the country’s presence to the global stage.

The first glimpses of what this support would consist of were first announced in March 2018, when Canada, pressured by European allies, committed to replace the German-Belgian helicopter task force in Gao, which provided logistical support to MINUSMA. This move was in line with the country’s smart pledges towards UN peacekeeping. Canada and several other countries pledged to support peacekeeping operations through highly-skilled contributions, such as troops and supply transport and medical support. In July 2018, Canada joined 56 other TCCs to MINUSMA when the first troops arrived in Gao. Operation Presence has filled a critical capability gap for MINUSMA, facilitating the deployment of troops and a 24/7 medical evacuation of wounded peacekeepers and civilians. Between July 2018 and March 2019, the Canadian contingent has conducted eight medical evacuations from its base in Camp Castor. These are all decisive for MINUSMA’s success, but they pale in comparison to the scale of the UN presence in Mali (16,000 members, civilian and uniformed) and the challenges it faces in this theatre.

In fairness, Operation Presence was always meant to be a one-year project. It was planned accordingly, with two six-month rotations between different units of the Canadian Armed Forces. The Edmonton-based 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron operated the Griffon helicopters between July 2018 and January 2019, before handing over to the Valcartier-based 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron for the last six months of the mission. The Chinook task force operated around the same basis, with two rotations between the Petawawa-based 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron. And beyond the troop contribution to MINUSMA, Canada is among Mali’s top providers of official development assistance and humanitarian assistance, on par with France in 2016-7. Mali is also by far the main beneficiary of Canada’s Peace and Stabilization Operations Programs through bilateral and multilateral partnerships (including via MINUSMA).

Peacekeeping only works when all partners are ready to go an extra mile for the success of the mission, despite the political costs.

Yet this development assistance stands in contrast with Ottawa’s reaction to the UN’s request to extend Operation Presence until October 2019. If a short extension conflicted with the planning of the mission — since the next rotated troops may not have had enough time to acclimatize to the operational environment in Gao before their withdrawal — another six-month troop rotation could have filled a critical gap for MINUSMA and allowed for a proper handover to the Romanian contingent. Logistics, however, are likely not the only factor. With an upcoming federal election, it is possible the Liberals do not want a military presence in Mali — albeit low-risk but much criticized by the opposition — to become a topical issue. But the rationale could be even more basic: the contribution to MINUSMA is simply not a high priority for Canada, especially when compared to its partnerships with NATO. Canada has repeatedly extended its contribution to NATO tactical battlegroups in the Baltic countries and in Iraq, following requests by allies.

Contributing to the debates on reforming peacekeeping may be a higher priority than facilitating MINUSMA’s operations. In the latest Canadian defence policy released in 2017 — Strong, Secure, Engaged — Canada committed to strengthening international peacekeeping by contributing troops and providing training for peace operations, by supporting reform to UN peacekeeping, and advancing the role of women and youth in the promotion of peace and security. The government has not really been clear about how it will operationalize those objectives, despite its leading role in the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations and the Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention on the Recruitment of Child Soldiers.

There are planning and coordination challenges in UN peacekeeping operations that need to be addressed. But peacekeeping only works when all partners are ready to go an extra mile for the success of the mission, despite the political costs. Canada’s intransigence towards MINUSMA stems more from its desire to minimize troop contributions, and from a higher interest in reforming UN peacekeeping, than from any logistical challenges that might be caused by an extension of its presence in Mali. That Canada had to be pressured by European countries into contributing to MINUSMA in the first place was already disappointing, but the decision not to extend its presence in order to support the UN troops in a low-risk and seriously needed operation is even more so. The slow deployment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers to support the training of the Malian police forces through MINUSMA and the EU Capacity Building Mission in Mali will be overshadowed by this.

MINUSMA remains dependent on the pledges of TCCs with more developed militaries for logistical operations. That the Dutch and German extended their operations in Gao when requested could have generated the same expectation from Canada. To fill the gap over the summer, MINUSMA will likely contract civilian helicopters to conduct troop transportation and medical evacuations, as it did last year for one month between the German-Belgian withdrawal and the Canadian arrival. This seems to be the option favoured by Ottawa, even though the ability of civilian helicopters to provide transport and medical facilities does not come to the level of the versatility of military helicopters. And the gap will be longer this time and occurs when MINUSMA’s spending comes under scrutiny from UN Security Council members frustrated with the lack of progress of the peace process in Mali.

The UN presence in Mali is at a critical juncture. MINUSMA’s ability to “stabilize” Mali is being seriously questioned with just a few months left to go before the end of its current mandate, in June 2019. The United States has reduced its contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget over the last two years, but was not successful in its push for a six-month renewal of MINUSMA’s mandate, instead of the traditional one-year. The goal of this bid was to force the mission and the signatories to deliver the provisions of the 2015 Mali peace agreement at a faster rate.

The same impatience was also apparent during consultations regarding the future of the mission in late March, when the US lamented the slow pace of the peace process and called for a major reconsideration of MINUSMA’s mandate. This view, however, obscures the role of signatory parties in delaying the implementation of the agreement, and overestimates MINUSMA’s abilities.

In this context, Canada’s position regarding the extension of Operation Presence couldn’t come at a worse time for MINUSMA. But it is also illustrative of the dissonance between the rhetoric and the practice of Canada over how it aims to actualize its policies on international peacekeeping. Once again, the expectations generated were greater than the political will.

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