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Conflict and intervention in Mali: the humanitarian consequences

Time (GMT +00) 14:00 16:00


David Gressly - United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Sahel

Jeremy Swift - Mali analyst and specialist in pastoral issues

Genevieve Boutin - Chief, Humanitarian Policy Section, UNICEF’s Office of Emergency Programmes

Bruce Whitehouse - Professor of anthropology at Lehigh University and author of Bridges from Bamako


Andrew Norton - Director of Research, Overseas Development Institute


Sara Pantuliano - Head of HPG

David Gressly began by providing an update on the humanitarian needs in Mali. The crisis began in 2011 when drought developed into a chronic food crisis. This led to food insecurity for four million people with an additional 175,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition. The military coup added a new dimension to the crisis by dividing the country, internally displacing 200,000 and displacing 200,000 refugees to Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and other nearby countries. The latest round of conflict, triggered by the French intervention, has caused additional displacement – around 22,000 refugees and 14,000 IDPs. These figures are rising steadily and 6,000 IDPs have been prevented from crossing the border. Gressly stressed that in the midst of the consequences of the conflict it is important not to forget the underlying issue of food insecurity as 80% of humanitarian needs are in the South and Central region of Mali, rather than the North.

Aid agencies however face greater challenges working in the North. Prior to the last emergency there were a few NGOs working in North-west, but the current intervention changed those dynamics considerably, as agencies lost access to those areas. Constraints on operational access include the use of IEDs between Gossy and Gao and the partial destruction of a key bridge. Coupled with continued concern about the security of staff the constraints have resulted in little aid getting to the three regions. It has been difficult for commercial supplies to reach the region as the border with Algeria has been closed and supplies cannot come up from the South. Gressly observed that needs are not yet at a critical stage but cautioned that food supplies may not last another three weeks. He stated that it is imperative that aid agencies gain access soon. He also noted that there have been reports of human rights abuses on both sides, which underscore the need to get humanitarian partners on the ground to provide protection, through their presence, and human rights monitors to gather facts and to respond to abuses.

Gressly continued by stressing that the international community needs to be prepared for a dynamic situation in Mali. There is a need for better situational understanding and creative ways to gain access. The UN expects two million people to be food insecure in 2013, mostly in the South. There needs to be a focus on supporting host communities and simultaneous support for the displaced to return or remain in camps or host communities.

Gressly concluded by emphasizing that in order to solve the humanitarian crisis the primary political issues in Mali must be addressed, which requires a balanced and equitable support strategy to all people in Mali.

Bruce Whitehouse spoke on the political transition in Mali. While the military intervention has been successful in recovering towns previously occupied by rebel groups the issue of who will command the Malian state in the future is a more complicated and difficult issue.

Whitehouse noted that some Malians are concerned that France might negotiate with the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA) and Tuareg rebels which could compromise Malian territorial integrity. He also argued that the MNLA have no legitimate claim to represent the whole of the Tuareg people, who do not themselves constitute a majority in the North. This makes the question of political legitimacy very difficult.

Whitehouse concluded by discussing the role of the army. He stated that there are concerns about the role of the army in resolving the situation not just with regards to its effectiveness but also because of the implications of its involvement in the political process. There is in-fighting in the Malian forces, which suggest they will not be able to live up the responsibilities of handover from the French and other foreign forces. The army also suffers from poor public opinion.

Jeremy Swift began by analysing the conflict, explaining that there are three ongoing ‘wars’.

1.       This first is the war of secession being fought by the Tuareg, though the rebels represent the demands of only part of the Tuareg population. Swift believes the Tuareg would settle for a solution involving devolution of power and extreme decentralisation from Bamako.

2.       Swift argued that the second is a ‘jihad war’. This war is being fought primarily with foreign fighters and is seen by many Malians as a foreign war which has been turning Mali into a fundamentalist country. Al Qaeda in particular has been present in Mali for five years, building a social programme through charity.

3.       The third is an on-going drugs war as a result of the massive trade in cocaine and kif. According to anecdotes, drug smuggling and hostage taking activities are linked to the highest political elite and the armed forces.

There has been renewed use of particular weapons of war last used in the 1960s and 1970s. These tactics, such as poisoning wells, rape and the recruitment of child soldiers, make life impossible for people with livestock and are more importantly an assault on social institutions; a serious issue as the pastoral economy relies on social relationships. Swift argued that due to the direct targeting of social relationships, it will be impossible to reconstitute livelihoods after the conflict.

Swift outlined two possible future scenarios.

·         In the first scenario the French forces drive out the fundamentalists from the three cities and the areas they pass through. The Malian army would follow, employing brutal tactics and the fundamentalists would temporarily retreat across an international border. The Malian army would seek retribution by carrying out violence on Tuareg civilians, which would lead to much greater displacement.

·         In the second scenario, Mali is secured against fundamentalist elements and an ongoing Guerrilla war. Swift argued that this could only be done by occupying the North by mobile groups, which would require the kind of extensive mobile economy that the Tuareg can provide. In the end only a return of large numbers of displaced Tuareg could create the circumstances in which the northern part can remain a part of Mali. This would require rebuilding social capital as well as physical capital.

Swift concluded by commenting that the humanitarian situation is gloomy but it should be recognised that a good outcome is possible.

Genevieve Boutin discussed the consequences of counter terrorism measures on humanitarian operations, covering legislation and the impact of heavy counter terrorist operations on humanitarian action

While counter terror legislation creates obligations on states and not on humanitarian organisations, the US has created national legislation that criminalises interactions with these groups for any US entity, including citizens. This may have implications for humanitarian staff. A recent study exposed real fear among staff of prosecution of themselves or their colleagues, of the organisation being listed itself, reputational damage to the organisation, and constraints on funding. Funding constraints became a real issue in Somalia in 2009 and led to a slower response to the famine.

This could lead to humanitarians avoiding actions which could lead to a freeze in funding in Mali. Several groups in the region are on counter–terror lists. The private sector in the region is also embedded with these groups in way which is difficult for humanitarians to understand. In Northern Mali it is difficult to ascertain the identity and allegiance of all the groups that control access to populations, provide services or commodities, so potentially any transactions can make staff liable to criminal pursuit. There have been additional security concerns; when the rebel groups gained control of the North humanitarian actors found it more difficult to access populations and had to carry out remote control programming.

There is nothing in legislation that restricts humanitarians from providing aid in areas which are controlled by terrorist entities, so it cannot be used to restrict access. The legislation also provides no guidance on the issue of speaking to or negotiating with non-state actors.  However, there may be attempts to politicise assistance in an attempt to regain territory. Donors could also impose strict demands on vetting partners, but it has not occurred so far. Boutin recommended that the humanitarian community ensure due diligence to limit misuse of assistance and avoid it falling into the hands of listed entities or inadvertently supporting a war economy.

Andy Norton focussed on the topic of restoring development aid to Mali in the context of the failing public systems, the inconclusive status of the conflict, and the lack of a legitimate government. Norton raised the concern that early signs of success could lead to a tendency to underestimate the complexity of the task. The Malian president has maintained that he will hold elections in July, which Norton hoped would be postponed or delayed. Delivering development aid in Mali will be a very demanding task and has to be implemented in tandem with the supporting the creation of a more legitimate government while dealing with conflict dynamics and addressing the issue of illegal and criminal economies.

Q & A

An audience member asked about prioritisation of the challenges in Mali. Whitehouse argued that the international community should prioritise supporting a political process that produces a government that is legitimate, inclusive and representative and offers a vision for a better future. He criticised the lack of leadership and political vision from the political elite in Bamako. David Gressly stressed that the international community needs to put forward a coherent approach and understand the need for multi-year engagement to see through the multiple crises in Mali.  

The regional aspects of the conflict were explored. Mauritania has stressed that the government of Mali must address the marginalisation of the Magreb population in the North. Certain elements in Morocco and Algeria are supporting rebel groups in Mali and the grievances of the Tuareg are being framed as a problem across the Sahel, not just confined to Mali. This means that there is a need for regional involvement in the search for a long term solution. David Gressly stressed that the issue needed to be approached with sensitivity as there is a perception in the South that all international attention is dedicated to the North.

Speakers addressed  the living conditions of refugees, many of whom are in Mauritania, living in the midst of some of the most impoverished communities in the Sahel who are themselves still recovering from a food crisis. Most are near the border but are being pushed into moving further inland, which raises additional issues to do with the refugees wanting to retain their cattle. The UN’s ability to work with pastoralists has been flagged as one of the key areas for improvement in the UN regional response to the food and nutrition crisis.

Additionally, there are a range of protection concerns for refugees in Mauritania. Some armed groups are recruiting in the camps and cultural practices relating to slavery still persist. Refugees are resisting efforts to provide assistance to individual heads of households and are requesting for assistance to be provided through elders. Access to education for refugees across the region is also patchy, and represents a lost opportunity. Ultimately it is also clear that refugees in Mauritania will not return until there is lasting, credible peace. Many have been refugees too many times over the last few decades to be easily convinced that the area is safe and secure. 

The question of whether greater regional involvement in the military intervention would improve the situation was put to the panellists. David Gressly remarked that in contingency planning regional military involvement emerged as being likely to have very negative consequences but that it was hard to know what the actual consequences of any decision would be in the current conflict. Swift concurred, remarking that only the Chadian forces are trained for the conditions in Mali and that Nigerian forces have been implicated in serious human rights abuses in Northern Nigeria. If there was military intervention by West African troops, Boutin remarked that there were would be a clear role for the international community in issuing and enforcing clear directives on human rights as well as establishing protocols and coordination so that child soldiers are handled appropriately. The humanitarian community should be vocal in defining a protection of civilians mandate especially as it is likely that troops may commit violations as well. Lastly, humanitarians should advocate that troops should not to get involved in humanitarian assistance. Several panellists also agreed that human rights monitors – of which there are only two, located in Bamako, rather than the North – are too few to be effective.

The discussion also covered communication with affected populations, which is currently carried out with mobile phones, but panellists noted that radios may be able to play larger role. External regional mediation was discouraged as being inappropriate as regional leaders could be seen as trying to manipulate actors on all sides for personal and economic reasons. The role of Malians themselves in these negotiations, including those who had been involved in previous peace deals, was underscored.

The discussion ended with cautions from the speakers about the fact that Mali was until recently portrayed as a development success, despite underlying disturbing trends. They also warned against a premature exit by the French troops who will be needed to address the security gap and prevent human rights abuses.


This panel event is scheduled to assess the humanitarian consequences of conflict and intervention in Mali and will feature speakers with specialisms on different aspects of the crisis.

Although frequently portrayed as a development success story, Mali has been beset by instability following a military coup, the re-emergence of Tuareg secessionists, a proliferation of Islamist-armed factions - and the influx of arms and fighters from Libya following the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi.

The consequences of the recent intervention by Mali’s former colonial power, France and the deployment of troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will also be discussed.

It is estimated that 700,000 Malians will be forced to flee in the next few months presenting humanitarian organisations with a range of needs arising from displacement and food insecurity – both within Mali and regionally. In addition, humanitarian organisations will have to negotiate the difficult terrain of counter terrorism legislation that could affect the provision of humanitarian assistance in areas held by terrorist groups.