For several years, the United Nations (UN) and its member states have debated how best to support some of the ongoing military operations in the Sahel, a region suffering from rising levels of violence, as well as political, humanitarian, and environmental crises. Since December 2017, the UN offered to support the G5 Sahel Joint Force through a complicated set of arrangements. Today, there are growing calls for the UN to establish a dedicated support office to finance the G5 Sahel Joint Force out of the UN’s assessed peacekeeping contributions. I think this would be a bad idea for several reasons.
The question of how the UN should best support non-UN peace operations is longstanding. Many UN peace operations have deployed alongside and in support of non-UN missions. But in the mid-2000s the UN started using its own peacekeeping funds to support some of these other missions. Africa has been the focus of such activities, starting in 2006 with the UN’s provision of so-called “light” and “heavy” support packages to the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS).
Then, in 2009, the organization established a UN Support Office for AMISOM, the first dedicated mechanism financed by UN peacekeeping assessed contributions to provide logistical and technical assistance to African Union peacekeepers in Somalia. In 2015, that was reconfigured into the UN Support Office for Somalia (UNSOS), which continues today.
Some have argued that the G5 Sahel Joint Force should get its own UNSOS-type mechanism to provide technical, logistical, engineering, medical and other forms of support financed from the UN’s assessed peacekeeping contributions. The G5 Sahel leaders have called for such a mechanism; the UN Secretary-General has suggested it; and so have some commentators. In the latter two cases, their argument is essentially that the current support mechanisms to the G5 Sahel Joint Force aren’t “predictable and sustainable” and hence they should be upgraded to a dedicated support office financed by the UN’s assessed peacekeeping contributions. However, some important principles are at stake, and hence creating such a support office is a bad idea.
The Joint Force is Not a Peace Operation
First and foremost, the G5 Sahel Joint Force is not a peace operation in the usual sense of the term. Peace operations are usually defined as involving foreign uniformed and civilian personnel operating in support of a peace process. The G5 Sahel Joint Force does not meet this definition. It consists primarily of troops (and some police) operating on home territory, although there are options for cross-border “hot pursuit” activities—earlier this year, Chad deployed a battalion of troops in the tri-border region between Burkina-Faso, Mali, and Niger. Hence, for the most part, the Joint Force’s contributing countries are simultaneously the host state. Legally, therefore, the Joint Force does not require UN Security Council authorization because it is an example of collective self-defense, authorized by the states on whose territory the Joint Force personnel operate. Rather than legal necessity, it appears that the G5 Sahel leaders want a Chapter VII mandate from the UN Security Council in large part to access UN peacekeeping funds, as occurred in Somalia following the AMISOM model.
When the host state and contributing country are one and the same, this would present the UN with significant challenges for identifying domestic (as opposed to Joint Force) operations and for ensuring accountability. It would be one thing if the G5 Sahel states were transparent and timely in reporting about their operations, but they have not been. As the latest UN Secretary-General report observed, “MINUSMA and partners noted the lack of information from the [Joint] Force on the conduct of operations.”
Support Mechanisms Already Exist
A second issue is that the G5 Sahel Joint Force is already benefitting from multiple support mechanisms. There are bilateral security force assistance arrangements from over a dozen states, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, as well as the European Union (EU). Moreover, the African Union is still working out the modalities of deploying 3,000 reinforcements for the Joint Force. Since February 2018, a trust fund has also supported the G5 Sahel Joint Force. So far, it has received approximately $145 million from Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the West African Economic and Monetary Union. The Joint Force has also been receiving multilateral support from MINUSMA, specifically logistical, medical, technical, and engineering assistance.
However, in this complicated arrangement, the EU has paid for the support delivered through MINUSMA by reimbursing the UN. As the UN Secretary-General summarized, MINUSMA’s “operational and logistical support for the Joint Force has so far relied on European Union funds.” He went on to note that “While MINUSMA and other partners have a role to play, the provision of support remains the primary responsibility of G5 Sahel countries.” Establishing a dedicated UN support office for the G5 Sahel Joint Force would thus represent a qualitative change in the financing of UN support. Hence, it is not solely a matter of expediency or efficiency, but also one of principle.
Inadequate Compliance and Accountability
Despite some recent improvements, compliance and accountability issues remain persistent problems, with G5 Sahel Joint Force personnel regularly accused of violating international humanitarian law. The recent improvements include establishing a Casualty and Incident Tracking and Analysis Cell in January 2021; sending radio messages before operations to all intervention units on their legal obligations; and monitoring of the capture, retention and transfer of detainees. It’s true that UNSOS has set an unhelpful precedent of supporting a non-UN peace operation (AMISOM) that has consistently suffered from accountability and compliance issues. But persistent Joint Force legal violations should put a break on a dedicated UN-financed mechanism, as should the lack of consistent, timely, and fully transparent information.
Finally, using a dedicated UN mechanism financed by the organization’s assessed peacekeeping contributions to support mostly domestic counterterrorism operations would set a bad precedent. It would undermine UN claims to impartiality and further blur the line between peace operations and domestic counterterrorism activities. It would probably also encourage other states and organizations around the world to demand similar UN support for their own domestic counterterrorism operations. In sum, this would not be a good use of the UN’s peacekeeping finances.
Paul D. Williams is a Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He tweets @PDWilliamsGWU.