Editors’ Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
A bloody week for MINUSMA
Last week saw a spate of attacks on UN blue helmets serving as part of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). On January 20, a vicious attack on a MINUSMA peacekeeping base located in the northeastern village of Aguelhok killed ten Chadian peacekeepers and injured at least 25 others. Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Muslimeen (JNIM), an al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for the attack, casting it as a response to Chad’s renewal of diplomatic relations with Israel. On January 24, a Burkinabe peacekeeper was injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack; the next day, two Sri Lankan peacekeepers were killed and six injured when a UN convoy struck an IED in Mali’s central Mopti region. Secretary General António Gutteres has reiterated that attacks targeting UN peacekeepers “may constitute war crimes under international law.”
MINUSMA remains the deadliest ongoing operation for the UN. At least 118 blue helmets have lost their lives thus far. The 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force first deployed to Mali in 2013, with a mandate to support the Malian state and to stabilize key population centers in Northern Mali. Since 2013, violence has spread to other parts of the country, particularly to the Mopti region, where jihadists and self-defense militias have manipulated ethnic antagonism to unleash a wave of violence. MINUSMA’s latest mandate, Resolution 2423, is consequently robust and authorizes the protection of civilians “against asymmetric threats.” The mission’s priority, as spelled out in the Resolution, is to support ongoing implementation of the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, concluded between the Malian state and two coalitions of armed groups.
MINUSMA in many ways illustrates the challenges of peacekeeping in the 21st century. Jihadists and other spoilers have directly targeted UN personnel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Yemen; UN convoys in northern Mali are regular targets of IED attacks. According to one report, some UN missions have had to devote as much as “90% of their operational capacity” to force protection and self-defense. Peacekeeping missions operating in such dangerous environments have increasingly been forced to take on warfighting functions. The establishment of a United Nations Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC, tasked with conducting offensive operations against rebel groups, has been widely seen as the beginning of a new era for UN operations. In Mali, MINUSMA has engaged in intelligence sharing with its French Army counterparts operating as part of Operation Barkhane, France’s counter-terrorism mission in the region.
Tense United Nations Security Council meeting on Venezuela
Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old leader of the National Assembly, declared himself acting president of Venezuela last Wednesday. President Trump moved quickly to recognize Guaidó as Interim President. Canada, Australia, Israel, and a host of Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, have likewise recognized Guaidó. Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands have announced that if Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro does not call for new elections by February 3, they too will recognize Guaidó.
On Saturday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed a special session of the UN Security Council, urging other countries to recognize the “legitimate government of interim President Guaidó.” Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s foreign minister, addressed the Council, which Venezuela is not a member of, and accused the United States of being “in the vanguard of the coup d’état.” Vassily Nebenzia, Russian ambassador to the UN, decried the “shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and its allies.” The Security Council did not issue a joint statement on Venezuela, a predictable result given the lack of agreement among council members. South Africa, China, Equatorial Guinea, and Russia had voted against even having a council meeting at all. The Secretary General issued a neutral statement urging “actors to lower tensions” and calling for an “independent investigation” into civilian casualties incurred during demonstrations. Guaidó has pushed for more UN involvement and has urged Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to come to Venezuela.
As Tess Bridgeman has argued, American recognition of Guaidó is a “dangerous bet”: “if security forces and vital services remain under Maduro’s control…it could lead to chaos or potentially severe violence.” Military leaders have largely remained loyal to Maduro thus far. Venezuela’s Defense Minister, criticizing American imperialism, has proclaimed that the military is “ready to die” for Venezuela. There are some signs, however, that Maduro’s hold on power may be slipping. On Saturday, Venezuela’s military attaché to the US, Colonel Jose Luis Silva, defected from Maduro’s government. American actions could well ramp up tension further in Venezuela. The Trump administration on Monday announced sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company (PDVSA), which will constrict Maduro’s access to funding, and gave Guaidó access to Venezuela’s financial accounts within the United States.
UN official probes Khashoggi killing in Turkey
Agnes Callamard, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, arrived in Istanbul on January 28, accompanied by a forensic and legal team. Callamard’s team will start an inquiry into the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Callamard, who has said “the inquiry was her own initiative, independent of the United Nations or any government,” will nonetheless present the team’s report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June. Turkey has yet to formally request an official UN investigation from the Secretary General.
Khashoggi, who was highly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was murdered in October of last year in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. According to Turkish audio recordings, Khashoggi’s death was gruesome, with his killers dismembering his body within minutes. Saudi Arabia began a trial of 11 suspects on January 3, though none of the men charged are the senior officials thought to have planned Khashoggi’s murder. Callamard will be in Turkey until Saturday and has requested visits to Saudi Arabia and to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.