22 January 2016

Mali: UN Agencies Working in a 'Hostile Environment' in Mali

Photo: Nicholas Reader/IRIN
Climate change has meant an increased frequency of drought cycles across the Sahel (file photo).

The UN says the humanitarian and security situation in northern Mali remains very complex and the Malian government is struggling to implement a peace deal with separatist Tuareg rebels.

The UN Staff Union is calling on Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to establish a panel to assess the effectiveness of current security measures as threats and attacks have multiplied. The Staff Union said that at least 27 peacekeepers and 24 civilian staffers died in Mali in deliberate attacks last year, continuing a trend of increasing death tolls.

UN Assistant Secretary General Toby Lanzer spoke to DW after he returned from nothern Mali where jihadists groups are known to be active in the vast, lawless Malian desert.

DW: Toby Lanzer, I understand you have been meeting signatories to that peace deal. Did they explain why they are having difficulty in implementing it?

Toby Lanzer: The entire environment in Mali is very complex and it has been so for a long time and unfortunately, it is likely to remain so. There is quite a lot of anxiety amongst populations in the south and north. A lot needs working out. I think it will be a matter of time, a matter of a very delicate negotiations and pushing things forward. In the meantime, I was looking at humanitarian consequences of this tension, of the insecurity, of climate change and of the extreme poverty that reigns throughout the north of the country.

Some Malian lawmakers are not able to visit their constituencies and are not in a position to find out what is happening on the ground. How can the humanitarian situation in those areas be improved?

You will be amazed but despite all difficulties, whether logistical or a matter of security, there are 98 organizations working on the ground in the north of Mali, including UN agencies such as UNICEF, the World Food Program and a number of non-governmental organizations. There is over one million people in the north of Mali who are receiving assistance of different sorts. I went in to a certain school in a place caleed Kidal where children were in the classroom for the first time in four years. So, a lot of good work is happening but I would underline that it's a pretty hostile environment for the aid agencies there.

It looks as if the presence of MINUSMA [United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali] and the French mission, BARKHANE is not sufficient to stabilize the Sahel region. What needs to be done?

There is a need to have a regular communication platform and strategy in place between missions of this nature and local population. I met with a group of women and a group of elders and both of them said they welcome the international community's support not only on humanitarian and development challenges but also to help stabilize the security situation.

MINUSMA has suffered the highest rate of losses of any active peacekeeping mission. 25 UN personnel died in Mali last year, what do you think the reason for this is?

Well, there is a lot of competition there amongst different groups. I think that competition can be as simple as whose truck are you hiring in which neighborhood and that could provide a pretext for somebody to do something really awful against you. That can happen to any organization. Non-governmental organizations that are the closest to the populations in the north of Mali, need to be listening more and communicating better. It doesn't mean we haven't been, but improvements can be made because at the end of the day our work should be tailored to the local context.

Germany is planning to send 650 troops to northern Mali as part of MINUSMA. They will be carrying out reconnaissance work with Dutch forces and providing logistical support in Gao. Now I understand that Gao was on your itinerary. How challenging an environment will this be for the German troops?

I just spend two days and two nights in Gao. It's a big town on the river and much of the city is partially safe and stable. I think the environment there is conducive for this generous and timely contribution by Germany to the stabilization efforts in the north of Mali. It's going to have an impact on the work of the aid agencies up there. Well trained troops are always welcome and of course that is a difficult environment. I have full confidence that all the troops working for the United Nations are really ready for what is a pretty tough test.

MINUSMA is a peacekeeping mission. It doesn't have an anti-terror mandate. Is this a disadvantage when trying to bring peace and stability to northern Mali?

One has to look at the root of the crisis in the north of Mali. What one sees is decades of marginalization, extreme poverty and the impact of climate change. In a way, that is the heart of the issue. If we increase the extent that we focus our programming in those areas, I think stability can come.

Toby Lanzer is the UN Assistant Secretary General.

Interview: Mark Caldwell

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