A military operation may be required as a last resort to deal with terrorist and criminal elements in northern Mali, but the priority must be on supporting the national authorities to restore constitutional order and reach a political settlement to the ongoing crisis, the Security Council was told today.
Mali has been dealing with a range of security, political and humanitarian problems since the start of the year. Fighting between Government forces and Tuareg rebels broke out in the country's north in January. Since then, radical Islamists have seized control of the north, where they have imposed an extremist version of Muslim Sharia law as well as restrictions that target women in particular.
The renewed clashes in the north, as well as the proliferation of armed groups in the region, drought and political instability in the wake of a military coup d'état in March have uprooted hundreds of thousands of civilians this year.
Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said in a briefing to the Council that the security situation in the north has continued to deteriorate, while gross human rights abuses and the destruction of historical and cultural sites in Timbuktu are still going on. Over 412,000 people have been forced to flee the north, and an estimated five million people have been affected by the conflict. Mali's complex crisis, he noted, requires an integrated response.
"As a first step, international support should be focused on supporting the Malian authorities in conducting an inclusive national dialogue aimed at reaching a national consensus on a transitional roadmap that addresses the full return to constitutional order and the grievances of groups in the north," he stated.
"Secondly, efforts to bring about a negotiated political settlement with armed groups who have disavowed ties to terrorist groups should continue in earnest.
"Finally, a well-conceived and executed military intervention in the north should be conducted as a last resort in the north to address terrorist and criminal elements and planning should be undertaken for stabilization activities in recovered areas."
In his latest report to the Council on the situation in Mali, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that inaction by the international community may prolong the suffering of those in the north who are living under the "brutal yoke of the extremists" and are seeing their cultural heritage being destroyed.
"Every passing day brings with it the risk of a further entrenchment of terrorist groups and criminal networks," Mr. Ban wrote. "Nevertheless, I am profoundly aware that, if a military intervention in the north is not well conceived and executed, it could worsen an already extremely fragile humanitarian situation and also result in severe human rights abuses.
"It could also risk ruining any chance of a negotiated political solution to the crisis, which remains the best hope for achieving long-term stability in Mali," he added.
The Secretary-General intends to establish a full-time UN political presence in the Malian capital, Bamako, that will be responsible for interacting with key stakeholders and report to both the Special Representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit, and his Special Envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi.
Regarding possible military intervention, UN military and police planners have worked closely with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union, in consultation with Malian authorities, in developing a framework for the proposed force.
Mr. Feltman told the Council that there are still questions about how the international and Malian forces would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed. Should the Council decide to authorize the deployment of the proposed African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), any operations conducted by the force will need to be well planned, coordinated and implemented.
The Secretary-General has proposed benchmarks for the possible commencement of military operations. They include the demonstrated operational readiness of the international and Malian forces, positive developments in the peace process, and the effective training of both forces' personnel on their obligations under international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law.
"The Secretary-General's position is clear," said Mr. Feltman. "He shares the urgency about the horrendous crisis facing Mali and he believes, at the same time, that the international response must be multi-dimensional and well conceived."