Global Policy Forum

The Humanitarian Fallout of a Military Intervention in Mali

An international military intervention in Northern Mali “could further destabilize an already extremely fragile humanitarian situation” and “very well inflict more harm to the population.” Jérémie Labbé from IPI rightly argues that intense fighting would directly affect the civilian population, increase the number of refugees and internally displaced persons, and compromise the relatively stable situation of the last few months. Moreover, a military deployment would inevitably constrain an already difficult humanitarian access. Ultimately, “the risk is real that a military intervention will be perceived as promoting a Western agenda,” which might endangers the neutrality and safety of humanitarian actors operating in the region. In order not to repeat the mistakes of the relief operations in Somalia, Labbé stresses that a potential intervention should proactively and strictly comply with the UN human rights due diligence policy and that humanitarian actors should engage with non-traditional actors such as Islamic charities and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Jérémie Labbé

December 14, 2012

The recent forced resignation of Mali’s Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra casts further doubt on the imminence of international military intervention to oust radical Islamist groups in the country’s north. The idea of a military intervention, while accepted in principle by the Security Council in Resolution 2071 adopted on October 12, 2012, remains largely debated. While it is urgently called for by France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which would lead the intervention, the United Nations and the United States are more cautious and want to see national unity strengthened before giving their support. The ousting of the Prime Minister, reportedly motivated by the reluctance of the military’s strongman Captain Sanogo to allow foreign troops on Malian territory, will undoubtedly reinforce skepticism.

Preparation for an intervention is well underway nonetheless, as related in a report of the UN Secretary-General submitted to the Security Council last week, pursuant to Resolution 2071. Despite the priority given by the Secretary-General to the political track—national dialogue and unity, but also negotiations with less radical armed groups occupying the north—the report says “a military intervention may be required as a last resort to deal with the most hard-line extremist and criminal elements in the North.” However, the report warns about “the possible impact of a military intervention on the extremely fragile humanitarian and human rights situation” and on the “ability [of the UN] to play a meaningful role in supporting short-term humanitarian and emergency assistance efforts.”

Military intervention is not imminent—the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the Sahel, Romano Prodi, doubted it would happen in advance of September 2013 even before the recent events. It remains worthwhile nonetheless to examine more in depth what the expected humanitarian fallout of such a deployment may be so that this is fully taken into account by all stakeholders.

Key Conclusions

  • An international military intervention is likely to have a direct impact on the civilian population, aggravating an already fragile humanitarian situation with additional casualties and displacement.
  • In that respect, the UN must use its recent human rights due diligence policy proactively as a tool to ensure protection of the civilian population by the intervening forces, by conditioning support to strict compliance with human rights and international humanitarian law.
  • A UN-supported military intervention in northern Mali risks impacting humanitarian access in the region (which is already constrained) as well as the security of staff as it might contribute to the perception by armed groups that aid agencies are associated with the effort.
  • Experience and setbacks from the relief operations in Somalia in 2011 can give valuable lessons due to numerous contextual similarities. Humanitarian actors might want to consider developing partnerships and coordination with entities that are not part of the traditional humanitarian system—like Islamic charities—who played a valuable role in the response in Somalia.


Since the takeover of northern Mali by armed groups in Spring 2012, more than 400,000 civilians have fled violence and oppression to find shelter abroad or in the southern part of the country. This happened on the backdrop of a serious food crisis that affected an estimated 18 million people across the broader Sahel region, and an approximately 510,000 people in northern Mali alone. The region is also characterized by widespread insecurity and lawlessness, and the presence of radicalized Islamist groups creates fear of security incidents and kidnappings that restrict humanitarian access. An international military intervention could further destabilize an already extremely fragile humanitarian situation for two main reasons.

First, although military intervention might well be the ultimate means to dislodge extremist groups from northern Mali and free the population from their oppressive rule in the longer term, the use of force is likely to bring more suffering in the short term. Despite several hundred thousands of displaced people, the situation in northern Mali must be examined with nuance. Although Islamic groups are responsible for serious human rights violations and impose a strict—and retrograde—interpretation of Sharia law, the region has seen little fighting in the last few months and enjoyed a relative stability. Hundreds of displaced Malians have reportedly been returning to their homes in the north in recent months. Taking this into account, an international military intervention is likely to result in intense fighting with its cortege of civilian casualties and renewed displacement. While military intervention is partially aimed at protecting civilians by freeing them from Islamist groups, it could very well inflict more harm to the population, at least during the active phase of fighting.

The Secretary-General is well aware of the risk to civilians. It is encouraging to see that he intends to deploy a large human-rights component in the future UN mission in Mali to monitor respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, including the international force. The report also mentions that any support to the intervention would have to be in strict compliance with the recent UN human rights due diligence policy. This policy conditions UN support to non-UN security forces to a strict respect for humanitarian, human rights, and refugee law. However, rather than using it as a damage-control tool aimed at absolving the UN of responsibility in potential crimes against civilians, there is a real opportunity to use it as a proactive engagement tool with friendly forces to ensure greater protection of civilians and avoid past mistakes as with the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Secondly, military intervention might further constrain humanitarian access and the safety of humanitarian staff in the region. At the December 10 high-level debate of the Security Council on the Sahel, US Ambassador Susan Rice called for humanitarian actors to participate in the military planning of the intervention, contributing to presenting them as an integral part of the strategy to recover the north of the country. The Secretary-General recommended in his report that the UN not be associated with counterterrorism efforts and the potential military operation in the north, for fear of being perceived as a party to the conflict. Yet, this concern remains at odds with the vision of a possible “multidimensional UN mission with a mandate to provide the Malian authorities with long-term stabilization and peacebuilding assistance,” to which humanitarian actors might well be asked to contribute. By sacrificing independent and neutral humanitarian action on the altar of stabilization, there is a real risk of repeating the mistakes of Somalia.

Parallels between Somalia and the Sahel are numerous: substantive chunks of territory are being controlled by Islamist groups, some of them affiliated to Al-Qaida; the UN and international community are keen to support a regional military force fighting alongside a government lacking legitimacy; while the broader region is in a state of chronic food insecurity. Just like in Somalia, the US designated the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) as a terrorist group. This move will likely further constrain humanitarian actors from engaging with a group that controls a large part of territory out of fear of prosecution for supporting a terrorist entity. In this context, it is likely that military deployment of regional powers supported by the West will further constrain what is already difficult access. While military intervention will facilitate delivering aid in “liberated areas,” humanitarian actors might be barred altogether from territories controlled by Islamic groups and might become, in their view, legitimate targets.

Somalia offers interesting lessons in that respect. As in the Sahel, humanitarian actors who are perceived as promoting a Western agenda are not welcome. The risk is real that a military intervention — even with limited and careful support from the UN—will be perceived as promoting a Western agenda and that aid agencies, willingly or not, will be associated with it. Unlike in Somalia, where Islamic charities and institutions like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) played an important role in the aid effort—being present where traditional humanitarian actors were not—aid agencies might want to consider developing partnerships and coordination with these emerging actors ahead of time. This would allow aid to reach communities in need wherever they are, while ensuring that mutually agreeable standards are respected. The recent joint mission in the Sahel in October 2012 of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the OIC is an encouraging step in that direction.


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