International efforts to help Mali emerge from its current crisis must be carefully balanced so that adequate security assistance is provided but, at the same time, Malians remain in charge and engaged in making progress on the political front, a top United Nations official said today.
"The right balance will have to be struck between providing the help needed and not overwhelming Malians with our presence," Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told correspondents in New York in his first press briefing in his current post.
The briefing follows his recent participation in a conference held on Mali in Brussels and his return from a range of meetings on the African continent.
Northern Mali has been occupied by radical Islamists after fighting broke out in January 2012 between Government forces and Tuareg rebels. The conflict uprooted hundreds of thousands of people and prompted the Malian Government to request assistance from France to stop the military advance of extremist groups.
In his remarks today, Mr. Feltman stressed the need for the UN and other international partners to engage national and regional actors in all efforts.
In the region and in Brussels, in meetings with Malian officials and those of the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), he said there was a common request to be kept prominently in the picture: "Talk to us; have consultations with us."
"The long-term goal is a democratic Mali where their forces are in charge of security," he said.
For that reason, he again stressed, as he had in Brussels, the importance of keeping a strong emphasis on the political track in Mali, which suffered a military coup early last year just as the insurgency in the north was gaining strength.
He speculated that some parties in Mali might lose sight of the need for internal change after the military intervention. "That's not the case; we do need to be working on the political side," he said. "The French intervention has accelerated developments on the security side; they need to be accelerated on the political side."
For that reason, he said, there must be implementation of the Roadmap for the political transition, recently established by Mali's parliament, requiring dialogue at all levels, between north and south, within the north and south and between civilians and the military.
Holding elections were important in that context, he said, but it was even more important that elections that are held are seen as credible, so as not to increase instability, and it was ultimately up to the Malians themselves to decide when polls would be held, he stressed.
Asked about a possible UN peacekeeping operation to take over from an African-led force already authorized by the Security Council, known as AFISMA, Mr. Feltman said that the decision was up to the Council, but had become more likely because of the swift French operation, which had dislodged Islamist militias from Timbuktu and other important northern cities.
"At this point the peacekeeping operation is going to come sooner rather than later," he said, emphasizing that discussions over such an operation were focused on filling the gap between the end of the current military engagement and the point that full security could be handed over to the Malians themselves.
During today's press conference, Mr. Feltman also provided brief comments on the other stops in his recent African trip, which included Somalia, which last year completed a political transition and is now looking ahead to next steps, and Kenya, where his focus was next month's elections.