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Terrorists Capitalize on COVID-19 to Erode State Authority, Attack National, International Forces in Sahel, Peacekeeping Chief Tells Security Council

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African Members Emphasize Urgent Need to Boost Operational Capacity of G5 Sahel Joint Force, Humanitarian Relief for Displaced

COVID-19 has added a layer of complexity to the highly volatile security situation in the Sahel, with terrorists capitalizing on the pandemic to undermine State authority and launch unrelenting attacks against national and international forces, the head of United Nations peacekeeping told the Security Council in a 5 June videoconference meeting*.

“It will take years to rebuild affected communities in the Sahel, even under the best circumstances,” said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations. “In the face of such loss and devastation, we cannot be passive,” he emphasized. He was presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation (document S/2020/373), which outlines options for strengthening the joint force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) States — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

He went on to note that the G5 Sahel has made “tangible and encouraging” progress since 2019, reforming its permanent secretariat and devising management and decision-making tools. It has strengthened the joint force through force‑generation efforts, revised its strategic concept of operations and established a joint command mechanism in Niamey, Niger, to enhance coordination with international forces. All these efforts have led to a major military operation, known as “Sama”, he said, adding that it is progressing well.

Against that backdrop, support from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has been critical, he stressed, noting that, in recent months, the consumption and disbursement rate of support provided by the Mission, and funded by the European Union, has increased from 21 per cent to almost 50 per cent. The European Union handed to the joint force its new temporary headquarters on 3 June, he said.

But, “the limitations of the current support model present significant obstacles”, he continued. “Transporting rations and fuel to joint force contingents remains the biggest challenge.” MINUSMA is operating at maximum capacity and “cannot go further” in its support under its current mandate and resources, he said, emphasizing that the current support model is not suited to address the transport and equipment shortages. Citing a recent Secretariat assessment, he said that among the options it presents is a comprehensive support package, which would include a United Nations office to provide logistical and operational support, funded through assessed contributions — or at least through a dedicated trust fund.

A second category of options would address immediate challenges, he said, adding that they would involve strengthening the joint force to procure and provide life support for its contingents, and to conduct medical evacuations outside Mali. Other options would require re-adjusting the support model to allow other partners to contract their own companies for the delivery of life support closer to the joint force’s areas of operations, authorizing MINUSMA to deliver life-support supplies beyond its area of operations, and expanding Mission’s engineering support.

He went on to reiterate the Secretary-General’s call for a comprehensive support package, funded through assessed contributions, which would allow for predictable and sustainable support that would easily phase out and render the joint force autonomous. Expecting more from MINUSMA in addressing the transport gaps would require expanding its mandate, securing additional resources and carrying out continuous fundraising, he pointed out. “The G5 Sahel joint force is on the right track, but there is still a long way to go,” stressing that strengthening it is only one strand of the comprehensive international approach required to tackle the causes of instability in Mali and the wider Sahel region.

Improving governance, ending poverty and protecting the human rights of all citizens remain critical, he continued, underlining the need for efforts to integrate the obligations of international human rights and international humanitarian law into the planning, conduct and review of military operations. “The international community can only be successful in the fight against terrorism if we stand united and follow a comprehensive, joint approach,” he said. “We have a shared responsibility for the Sahel.”

Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed, Mauritania’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, spoke in his country’s capacity as President of the G5 Sahel, stressing that a diabolical alliance between terrorist groups and drug traffickers, the structurally damaging consequences of climate change and chronic poverty have resulted in the spread of violence across the visibly deteriorating security landscape. As violence spreads to new territories every day, the security threat sweeping the Sahel is both a local and global problem, deserving an international response, he asserted.

Reiterating the Sahel States’ request that the Security Council include the joint force in its Chapter VII considerations, he said that, while awaiting its decision, vigorous action is needed to reconquer abandoned territories and rescue populations in distress, with the goal of restoring the protective State and public services that are essential to people’s lives. The Coalition for the Sahel’s political, strategic and operational framework, he added, is centred on four pillars: fighting terrorism; reinforcing military capacities; supporting the return of the State in crisis zones; and development aid. While thanking all partners for their support, he pointed out that the mobilization of funds for priority investment programme does not yet meet expectations.

He went on to outline G5 Sahel priorities, including efforts aimed at strengthening the operational capacities of the joint force, air forces, internal security forces and State presence in sensitive areas. Initiatives also focus on the Emergency Development Programme, Integrated Priority Action Framework, support for empowering populations, employing young Sahelians and strengthening regional integration. Other goals focus on strengthening intra- and intercommunity dialogue by promoting political, religious and social dialogue; by developing education and awareness of the radicalization phenomenon among young people; and by building the necessary trust between defence and security forces and the population. In addition, decisions must be made about what kind of future to build amid the COVID-19 crisis, he emphasized.

Highlighting progress in strengthening the operational capacities of the joint force, he said that a €238 million contribution from the European Union included armoured vehicles, material for protecting against improvised explosive devices and communications equipment. However, long-term funding is needed, he said, noting that training combatants and executives remains a major challenge. He went on to welcome the support provided by Operation Barkhane.

Meanwhile, achieving full capacity requires the joint force to fully understand the dimension of human rights, international humanitarian law and relationships of trust with the people, he said. In terms of operationalizing the joint force, he called attention to several actions already carried out, including the installation and activation of the Joint Command Post in Niamey. Among more than 20 actions, the joint force mounted a large-scale operation on the Mali‑Burkina Faso-Niger border, which won it control of the area as it neutralized armed terrorist groups there, he said. Support from all partners is crucial, he emphasized.

Implementation of the MINUSMA-European Union Training Mission-joint force tripartite agreement will significantly strengthen the capacities of the joint force, he continued. Recalling the recent inauguration of the third joint force command post in Mali, built by MINUSMA with funds made available by the European Union, he expressed support for extending and strengthening the Mission’s mandate. Describing the Sahel as a region where almost all the world’s problems converge, he declared that it nevertheless has the will to rise and become a region of promise and opportunity.

In the ensuing discussion, delegates reaffirmed their support for the G5 Sahel countries and commended the progress made in fighting terrorism.

Belgium’s representative said: “We have always encouraged the G5 [Sahel] not to condition progress on the availability of resources or equipment,” emphasizing that, in fighting terrorism, there is also need to ensure political commitment and ownership at the highest levels, and to defeat terrorist narratives. He continued: “Our call for respect for the rule of law and basic human rights is not merely philosophical, it is […] an indispensable condition for defeating terrorism.” He went on to call for strengthening implementation of the Human Rights Compliance Framework.

The Dominican Republic’s representative said terrorist groups are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase attacks and usurp authority. As such, peace and security efforts must be strengthened, he emphasized. Despite the gains made, remaining challenges must be promptly addressed to pave the way for the full operationalization of the Joint Force, which would demand greater coordination among the latter, the European Union and MINUSMA.

Niger’s representative, speaking also on behalf of South Africa, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said the security challenges in the G5 Sahel countries place a particular burden on the region’s 1.4 million internally displaced persons, and on the 14.7 million people in need of assistance. Expressing concern over the need for resources to alleviate their condition, he noted that the effects of climate change — particularly on pastoral activity essential to local economies — aggravate the precarious situation. He went on to deplore efforts by terrorist groups to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is undeniable that security in the Sahel has deteriorated, he said, pointing out that the G5 Sahel countries devote between 15 and 30 per cent of their respective budgets to the defence sector. The joint force freed six hostages during a complex operation on 3 March, he recalled, noting it has been active in various red zones.

The situation in the Lake Chad Basin region has improved significantly, thanks to “Operation Colère de Bohoma”, led by the Chadian army, he continued, noting that G5 Sahel security arrangements have been enhanced by the creation of the Joint Command Mechanism for troops operating in the Liptako Gourma. He also pointed to the launch of the Coalition for the Sahel and the upcoming launch of the Takuba Task Force operation, in which European special forces will be engaged. He went on to call for intensified support to bolster the military capabilities of G5 Sahel States, restore State authority in areas under terrorist threat and undertake development efforts, while requesting that the Council place the joint force under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations. He also called for a “Marshall Plan” to support development in the Sahel, and for the extension of complete operational support, both tactical and strategic, to the joint force. He expressed the firm commitment of G5 Sahel States to implementing the Human Rights Compliance Framework.

China’s representative emphasized that African issues should be solved through an African-led and -owned process, with the international community demonstrating respect for the political will and sovereignty of the region’s countries. He called for efforts to tackle challenges arising from terrorism and transnational organized crime, with MINUSMA providing logistical support to the joint force within its mandate. United Nations agencies should help Sahel countries enhance their counter-terrorism capacities, solve the causes of the region’s instability, notably underdevelopment. China is assisting in the areas of infrastructure and connectivity, he said, adding that his country also provides scholarships for study in China. He called for strengthening MINUSMA’s capacity to fight COVID-19, noting his country’s pledge to pair its hospitals with 30 African hospitals and to make any eventual Chinese vaccine a global public good.

Estonia’s representative said his country contributes to the restoration of security and stability by joining Task Force Takuba, providing personnel for MINUSMA and Operation Barkhane, and by making financial contributions to the European Union Trust Fund for Africa. He went on to emphasize the importance of adhering to human rights principles and the international humanitarian law framework when conducting counter-terrorist operations, noting that long-term security hinges on addressing the root causes of the instability.

The United Kingdom’s representative called attention to his country’s contribution of non-combat assistance to Operation Barkhane and to the European Union Training Mission. He went on to emphasizing that all reports of human rights violations — whether by extremist groups, “self-defence” militias or State security forces — must be addressed, urging G5 Sahel Governments to ensure that any alleged violations committed by their security forces are investigated. It is also critical to respect the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian actors and to facilitate their unimpeded access to those in need, he said.

The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity, citing some of the results of increased military operations by the joint force — neutralization of terrorists, seizure of weapons and equipment, and the release of hostages. “These armed forces gain more and more autonomy and coordination,” he said, describing increased international support as “a key milestone”. France and the European Union supported the launch of the Coalition for the Sahel, he recalled, noting that the launch led to the creation of the Joint Command Mechanism between France’s Operation Barkhane and the G5 Sahel forces. It also resulted in greater commitments from the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union. They are funding a $2.3 billion anti‑terrorist plan, he said, emphasizing MINUSMA’s essential role in that regard.

Also participating were representatives of the United States, Russian Federation, Germany, Viet Nam and Indonesia.

  • Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.