Top United Nations officials today called on the Security Council and the wider international community to support efforts to develop an integrated strategy to tackle the complex and multifaceted crisis facing the Sahel region of West Africa.
"The warning lights for the Sahel region continue to flash," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Council, as it met to discuss the situation in a region that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and includes Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and parts of Sudan, Cameroon and Nigeria.
In addition to political instability in Mali, the region - particularly in its west - suffers from extreme poverty, with human development levels among the lowest in the world, porous borders that present significant security challenges, as well as human rights problems.
"The governments and people of the Sahel region need our full support," Mr. Ban said. "The United Nations has mobilized over $1 billion to support the countries of the region respond to the immediate needs of affected populations.
"The recent rainfall promises a better harvest season, which should help ease food insecurity. However, much more needs to be done," he added. "We must strengthen resilience across the region."
In September, the Secretary-General appointed former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi as his Special Envoy for the Sahel, and tasked him with shaping and mobilizing an effective UN and international response to the crisis in the region. Among the envoy's priorities is finalizing and implementing the UN Integrated Regional Strategy for the Sahel.
"I intend to exert all possible efforts to mobilize what is needed," Mr. Prodi told Council members, adding that he plans to travel to the region for the third time next week. Together with the Secretary-General's Special Representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit, he will meet key actors to discuss security, political, humanitarian and development issues facing the governments in the region.
He noted that resources are key to tackle all the challenges facing the Sahel. In this regard, a meeting will be organized soon to mobilize the necessary funds for urgent humanitarian action. A multi-donor trust fund for the Sahel is also being considered.
Both Mr. Ban and Mr. Prodi acknowledged the need to address the crisis in Mali - which has been dealing with a range of security, political and humanitarian problems since early this year - as part of international efforts for the Sahel.
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.
UN military and police planners have worked closely with the regional grouping known as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union, in consultation with Malian authorities, in developing a framework for possible military intervention in the north.
At the same time, the UN has stated that a military force 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 crisis.
"I would like to echo the views of the Secretary-General that any military effort in Mali must be undertaken after careful analysis and thorough preparation and that these efforts should be part of an agreed political process that tackles the roots of the conflict," stressed Mr. Prodi.
The number of Malian refugees in neighbouring countries is now estimated at more than 140,000, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, who said his agency is facing "significant" challenges in assisting this vulnerable group. Most of the refugees are hosted in remote, arid areas, and it takes several days of driving on poor roads to provide them with food, water and medical supplies.
"The refugee-hosting States need and deserve much stronger international solidarity to help them manage the additional strain created by the refugee influx," Mr. Guterres told the Council meeting.
Going forward, he said that Member States must give full consideration to the humanitarian dimensions of the crisis as they consider the appropriate international response.
He also urged all actors in the conflict, including a potential international force, to protect humanitarian space and ensure agencies have unhindered access to affected populations. In addition, planning for the political transition and post-conflict recovery must take into account those who have been forced to flee.
During today's meeting, the Council issued a presidential statement in which it, among other things, voiced serious concern over "the insecurity and the significant ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region," which is further complicated by the presence of armed groups as well as the continued proliferation of weapons from within and outside the region.
"The Security Council also recognizes the importance of a comprehensive approach encompassing security, development and humanitarian issues to address the immediate and long-term needs of the Sahel region," the statement added.