The time for peace talks in Mali is now, the United Nations peacekeeping chief told the Security Council today, underscoring the importance of a successful political process to the country's stability and reversing the sharp deterioration in the security situation in the northern town of Kidal.
"A successful political process is the cornerstone of this stability," Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, told the 15-member Council.
"All aspects of the stabilization of Mali, including the restoration of State authority, the re-establishment of security and the protection of civilians, remain contingent on the successful conclusion of peace talks between the Malian Government and northern armed groups in the framework of the Ouagadougou Agreement," he added.
Signed on 18 June of last year in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, between the Tuareg rebel groups from northern Mali and the Government, the agreement allows the Malian regular army, as well as its civil administration, to gradually return to the region of Kidal, held by rebels since 2012. The accord was also co-signed by the representatives of the UN, African Union (AU), European Union (EU), and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
After a "promising start" one year ago today, Mr. Ladsous said, "the Government and the armed groups have made little progress towards real, substantive dialogue."
Despite initial improvements in 2013, the situation in northern Mali has deteriorated since the beginning of 2014, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in his latest report on the country. An increase in incidents involving improvised explosive devices, mostly targeting Malian and international security forces, contributed to an overall sense of insecurity that has impeded the return to normalcy and resumption of economic and development activities.
On 17 May, the Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA) seized and burned the governor's office in Kidal, resulting in President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta saying the attack was a "declaration of war." Most recently, an offensive by the Mali Defense and Security Forces (MDSF) to retake Kidal on 20 May resulted in some 50 dead, according to the Government.
Armed groups have now taken military, and to an extent, administrative control over Kidal and other northern towns.
"I condemn the atrocities committed in the country in the course of these hostilities," Mr. Ladsous said.
He noted, however, that "a narrow window of opportunity has now opened" with the singing of a ceasefire on 23 May, due in part to the joint good offices of President Abel Aziz of Mauritania and Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA), Albert Gerard Koenders.
In parallel, armed groups met under the auspices of Algeria in early June, signaling "their willingness to enter into negotiation with the Government," Mr. Ladsous said, adding that Mr. Koenders and MINUSMA stands ready to continue to play a key role in encouraging the peace efforts.
"But ultimately, it is for the Malian parties to abide by their commitments and agree to the launch of the peace talks at once," he stressed.
The Security Council is reviewing the situation in Mali today because it will have to decide whether to extend the mandate of MINUSMA, and if so, whether to make any changes. As it now stands, the mandate will expire on 30 June.
Ahead of these discussions, the UN peacekeeping department (DPKO) initiated a strategic review of MINUSMA. The key finding, as outlined in Mr. Ban's report, was that "the extension of State authority and stabilization cannot be decoupled from the political process, which therefore remains the top priority."
The four main recommendations were to reframe and strengthen the Mission's political role and to reiterate the importance of the political process; to develop a shared vision for the way forward with the Malian authorities; to expand MINUSMA's presence and mobility in the north; and to add or clarify tasks, such as counter-trafficking capacity-building.
MINUSMA will be up to 70 per cent of its envisaged civilian strength by the end of the month, 77 per cent of its military strength and 83 per cent of its police strength, the UN peacekeeping chief confirmed.
"About 90 per cent of the Mission's military assets were already based in the north," Mr. Ladsous said, adding that all of MINUSMA's authorized military and police capabilities, except some utility and armed helicopters, have been granted. DPKO also intends to deploy unmanned aerial systems to enhance the Mission's situational awareness and its ability to protect civilians and staff.
Mr. Koenders is expected to address the Council in a closed session later today.