UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council has given the green light to transform an African-led force in Mali into a U.N. peacekeeping force. The African soldiers will swap their current helmets for the blue ones of U.N. peacekeepers starting on July 1, but only if the Security Council decides 60 days from now that security conditions are conducive. If not, the council can delay their deployment.
The African force, known by its acronym AFISMA, now numbers about 6,200 troops from countries including Nigeria, Chad, Gabon and Burkina Faso. As the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali - or MINUSMA - it will be authorized to expand to more than 12,000 troops and police.
After the Security Council unanimously authorized the mission Thursday, French Ambassador Gérard Araud told reporters that the U.N. force would not pursue terrorists in their strongholds, but would defend themselves if attacked.
“The peacekeeping operation is not going to conduct any anti-terrorist activity," Araud said. "It is stabilization, stabilization of the north of Mali. You know it’s very simple, why do we need stabilization force? It is because we need to rebuild a Malian army. As soon as the Malian army is able, in a sense, to ensure the sovereignty of the Malian state, there won’t be any need of a peacekeeping operation.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had originally recommended that there be a parallel force operating alongside the stabilization mission to handle counter-terrorism duties - a task that is normally beyond the mandate of U.N. peacekeepers.
But instead of a separate force, the resolution authorizes France to intervene if there is an “imminent and serious threat” and upon the request of the U.N. chief. France has led offensive operations against the rebels in the north since the Malian government appealed for its help in January.
France has said it has begun drawing down its 4,000 troops from Mali and by the end of the year expects to have only about 1,000 in the country. But with military assets in nearby Chad and Senegal, it could quickly respond to a threat in Mali.
There has been some concern expressed by human rights groups and some member states that if the African forces transition to U.N. peacekeepers, they must meet certain standards, particularly in human rights training. And in the case of Chad, there have been questions whether its troops would be allowed to continue as part of the U.N. force because the country has been criticized for its use of child soldiers.
U.N. Peacekeeping Chief Hervé Ladsous said troops for the new mission would have to meet U.N. standards.
“Human rights is one of the core elements of the mandate. Definitely, we will do two things: we will do some vetting of the personnel and we will increase the training in human rights and international humanitarian law. This, we want our people to be impeccable," said Ladsous. "That is very clear.”
The new force for Mali is tasked with protecting civilians, preventing the return of armed groups to population centers, and helping the Malian authorities re-establish state control throughout the country. The mission will also have a human rights monitoring component, as well as a political dimension focused on assisting with presidential and legislative elections scheduled for July, and the starting of a national reconciliation process.
A U.N. envoy for Mali is expected to be named soon to head the mission.