The United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Mali puts UN peacekeepers directly in conflict with violent extremism. It is the deadliest peacekeeping mission in the world.  Recent events sh0w why.

On January 21, ten peacekeepers were killed and 25 more wounded in one of the single deadliest attacks against blue helmets in the history of UN Peacekeeping. An al Qaeda-linked group operating in Mali ambushed a peacekeeping outpost in a restive province in the north of the country, a firefight ensued. All of the peacekeepers killed and wounded were Chadian, serving in what is formally known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, MINUSMA.

This deadly event underscores the profound risks that peacekeepers are taking in Mali, which is on the front-lines of the global fight against terrorist groups.

As the name of the mission suggests, MINUSMA’s main goal is to help stabilize Mali. It was deployed following a French-lead military engagement against jihadist insurgents who threatened to overtake the country in 2013. The French still maintain a military presence in Mali, but it is up to UN Peacekeepers to do the day-to-day work of deterring the re-emergence of armed jihadist groups. This includes typical UN peacekeeping efforts in volatile parts of the country and also non-traditional military tasks like patrolling regional markets, mediating inter-communal disputes , and even setting up community radio stations. 

It is through these daily efforts that Mali has transformed from a country that was on the cusp of being overrun by Taliban-like insurgents to a country on the path to political reconciliation.

UN Peacekeepers provide daily security and have a longer term mission to help build Mali’s own security sector. Blue Helmets are also a very visible symbol of the broader international community’s commitment to peace in Mali. For these reasons,  MINUSMA peacekeepers have been frequent targets of jihadist groups that seek to sow instability and de-legitimize the government of Mali, with which the UN is partnering as the country moves towards political reconciliation and economic development.

MINUSMA is the single deadliest UN peacekeeping, with 177 fatalities since 2013. It is also one of the largest missions, with over 15,000 personnel deployed. As you can see from this chart, most of the troops that are deployed to this deadly mission are from the developing world.

Credit: MINUSMA

It is worth acknowledging that despite the huge risk, countries like Burkina Faso, Chad and Bangladesh are willingly deploying their troops to the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission to the principal benefit of the people of Mali.    There are also, of course, ancillary benefits to this mission for the rest of the world. To the extent that Mali can no longer become a haven for jihadist groups with global aspirations, these countries are putting their troops on the line in larger service of global peace and security.

To that end, these peacekeepers ought to be able to count on the support of more powerful countries in the world. This includes these country’s financial support for UN peacekeeping. The problem is, UN Peacekeeping right now is facing an unprecedented funding crunch. Last week, the UN Secretary General wrote a letter to all UN member states saying that UN peacekeeping only has enough cash on hand to fund two more months of its operations. The main reason for this shortfall is that the wealthier UN member states that provide the bulk of funding for UN peacekeeping (as opposed to the bulk of the troops) have not paid their fair share of peacekeeping costs. Countries are either late with payment, or delinquent. The United States, which is is the largest single financial contributor to UN peacekeeping, is currently $750 million in arrears.

Unless the rest of the world supports UN peacekeeping, missions will face deeper and deeper challenges, potentially calling into question the ability of these missions to succeed. And for a mission like MINUSMA, failure means ceding space to terrorist groups with aspirations to strike targets around the world.

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