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As UNGA Winds Down, Mali Warns of Rising Dangers in the Sahel as France Claims a Recent Success

Secretary-General António Guterres with Kandia Kamissoko Camara, the foreign minister of the Ivory Coast, Sept. 27, 2021. In her speech to the General Assembly, she focused on the pandemic, West African instability and other “challenges” to peace in the world. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

On the last day of global leaders’ speeches at the opening of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the array of countries on the roster ranged from Israel to Iceland, from Algeria to North Korea, from Canada to Guinea. Two long-scheduled countries to deliver messages — Afghanistan and Myanmar — were suddenly dropped, with politics surely getting in the way. Mali, which spoke on Saturday, is included in this writeup.

FRANCE

Skirting the affront this month that France felt at the creation of a new American alliance with Britain and Australia that cost the French government billions in losses to its economy and caused President Emmanuel Macron to boycott this year’s high-level General Assembly opening session, France’s foreign minister shifted his address to the necessity for nations to work together on a broad scale.

He made a few suggestions for implementing improvements in that regard, including holding a summit of the Security Council’s permanent-five members to work out a common program or strategy for dealing with global problems that are no longer confined within borders.

“By reminding us of the extent to which our destinies are linked — for better and for worse — the pandemic crisis has reminded us of the value of what has united us at this organization for over 75 years,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister said, speaking by pre-recorded video from France, after spending last week in New York City meeting with his counterparts during the height of the Assembly gathering.

“The will to cooperate, the primacy of law over force, unconditional respect for the human person: the principles of our Charter have not lost any of their meaning,” he said. “In fact, quite the opposite. Today’s crises and challenges have made them even more essential.”

However, in an indirect reference to the new alliance (notably of Anglo-Saxon countries) that will share in the supply and production of nuclear-powered submarines to be based in Australia, Le Drian noted that France was still a power in Asia. The nuclear-powered, but not armed, submarines are intended to upgrade a military presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region.

“And that is why we are taking action and will continue to do so for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific with our willing partners in the region and other Europeans alongside us,” Le Drian said. “As an Indo-Pacific nation, France has major interests in the region, as does Europe which has just set out a strategy in this area.”

Much of Le Drian’s address was devoted to describing in great detail many French projects in Africa, a continent where France has considerable influence, particularly in French-speaking countries of the north, the Sahel and the West. It is an influence is not always embraced by these countries.

“In the Sahel, we are adapting our military structure to retain our long-term action capabilities, to meet the expectations of our regional partners and to remain fully available to our international partners, those from the Coalition for the Sahel and those serving within MINUSMA,” he said. “These efforts, which are producing real results, as can be seen by the recent killing of Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, are not sustainable without political stability and respect for the democratic process. I particularly have in mind the timetable for elections in Mali which must be strictly observed.”

In Libya, he added, “there is now a credible path to restore unity and sovereignty in the country, provided that all parties fulfil their obligations, the foreign mercenaries withdraw, the ceasefire remains in place and elections are held as planned on 24 December.”

Le Drian repeated the need for coordinated action, wherever and whenever a crisis arises — in the approach to the Covid pandemic, avoiding the collapse of the Iranian nuclear accord or mitigating further environmental damage to the planet.

“Each of us must shoulder our responsibility and provide a contribution that is commensurate with what is at stake,” he said. “Namely human lives, international stability, and the future of the generations to come. We must rally around the objective of climate neutrality by 2050 before it is too late. Here again, France will show its solidarity by providing €6 billion a year and devoting more than a third of its financing to climate adaptation.

“Because in a world of exchanges and interdependencies, a world with environmental emergencies, a world facing worrying attitudes of brutalization and the constant temptation of unilateralism, everything that we do together — and conversely, everything that we fail to do — affects us all.” — BARBARA CROSSETTE

MALI

Mali lambasted France for its “unilateral” plans to withdraw its forces, alluded to other military partnerships on the horizon and called for the UN peacekeeping mission based in the country, Minusma, to take a more “offensive” mandate.

Security rather than Covid-19 or climate change topped the agenda for Mali, whose speaker, Choguel Kokalla Maïga, the transitional prime minister since Mali’s May 2021 coup, addressed the General Assembly live. He projected the status of the landlocked Sahelian nation as aggrieved by France for its seeming to abandon a key ally in the region and suggested that Minusma is largely ineffective because of its weak mandate.

Minusma was established in Mali in 2013, when armed jihadists overtook much of the country’s north, including the fabled city of Timbuktu, and France intervened militarily with temporary success. France has been providing security support to Mali since then in various formations. President Emmanuel Macron announced in May that France was withdrawing its 5,000 or so troops from Mali after its second coup in one year.

Maïga painted a grim picture of the security conditions in his country, which have worsened despite the presence of one of the largest peacekeeping missions in the UN’s portfolio and European and French forces.

“The people in Mali are exasperated today by the mass killings, the villages erased from the map, the innocent civilians mowed down, including women and newborns who are often burnt alive,” Maïga said on Sept. 25, providing a French-only copy of his speech to the UN documents center. The security situation in Mali has “scarcely improved, despite international support,” and he called for “introspection” and a “paradigm shift” regarding the Sahel.

French abandonment and new partnerships

Amid growing diplomatic concern that Mali may enter into an agreement with the Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group, Maïga criticized France for “unilaterally” deciding to withdraw its forces, without regard for Mali or the UN. He accused France of leaving Mali “midflight,” forcing it to “explore pathways and means to better ensure our security autonomously or with other partners.”

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, confirmed to media at the UN on Sept. 25 that his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, and the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, raised the topic of the Wagner Group with him during the UN session last week. Lavrov said of Mali: “It has called upon a private Russian military company because, to my understanding, France intends to substantially reduce its military presence there, and these troops were tasked with fighting terrorists entrenched in the north, in an area called Kidal. But they did not succeed, and terrorist are still in control there.” He added of the Wagner Group’s possible role in Mali, “We have nothing to do with this.”

Lavrov also said that Borrell told him that Russia should “stop working in Africa altogether” because “this is ‘their place.'”

But France’s defense minister, Florence Parly, reaffirmed last week, according to France 24, that France was not abandoning Mali and that it remained “determined” to continue to fight terrorism with Malian forces.

Meanwhile, the highly riveting spat between France and the US over the new Australian, British and American security plan in the Indo-Pacific region (and the sale of nuclear submarines by the US to Australia), was partly allayed last week by a phone call between President Joe Biden and Macron. In the White House statement on the two countries making up, the US said that it “commits to reinforcing its support to counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel conducted by European states.”

The State Department also released a statement on Sept. 25 in which it condemned “unequivocally the militant attack on Friday that led to the death of a French soldier near Gossi in northern Mali. The tragic loss underscores the sacrifice so many soldiers have made for security in the Sahel. The United States extends its condolences to the people of France. We stand firmly beside our close ally France and continue to partner with Mali on its path back to democracy and stability.”

A more aggressive Minusma

While Maïga thanked Minusma for its efforts and the sacrifice of its troops in the world’s deadliest peacekeeping mission, he underlined the deteriorating security in its eight years of operation. Maïga called on the mission to take a more “offensive” mandate — which would have to be approved by the UN Security Council, of which France is a permanent member, along with Britain, China, Russia and the US.

Mali’s transition

Mali’s elections, scheduled for early 2022, appear to be delayed, with plans for electoral reform and the establishment of an independent body announced. The August 2020 military-led coup, headed by now-President Col. Assimi Goïta, was fueled by a wave of discontent at the ever-precarious security problems and corruption in Mali. Maïga flagged plans to address “corruption and impunity” and the importance of credible elections to reinforce state legitimacy. — CLAIR MACDOUGALL

Choguel Kokalla Maïga, transitional prime minister of Mali, speaking to the General Assembly’s 76th session, Sept. 25, 2021. He criticized France for threatening to withdraw its troops from Mali, which faces rising dangers from jihadist and other insurgency attacks, a situation that started in 2012. A Russian paramilitary group is reportedly talking with Mali about sending its own forces to help the country defend itself. LOEY FELIPE/UN PHOTO

ICELAND

A day after national elections in the country, on Saturday, an initial electoral count put 33 women into the 63-seat parliament, up from 24 in the previous vote. But a recount on Sunday showed that 30 women were elected. The status of Prime Minister Karin Jakobsdottir, a member of the Left-Green movement who was running for re-election in the Sept. 25 vote, is still unclear.

Rwanda, Cuba and Nicaragua are the only countries that have more women than men in parliament, while Mexico and the United Arab Emirates have parity, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Iceland is often reported as the most equal gender society in the world, but the Covid-19 pandemic exposed important gaps, including the overall neglect of immigrant women who work in the care industry in Iceland, PassBlue reported from Reykjavik, the capital, in July.

Speaking for Iceland at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 27, Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, the foreign minister, said in a video speech that globally “gender parity is too far off, gender-based violence is rampant and millions of girls are married off as child brides.”

Climate change

Iceland’s ambition, Thordarson said in the video with a backdrop of Iceland’s volcanic terrain, was to go “beyond the Paris commitments” — that is, the Paris Agreement on climate change. This includes, he said, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than half by 2030, completing carbon neutrality by 2040 and becoming fossil-free by 2050. All of Iceland’s electricity and nearly 85 percent of its energy use come from renewable sources, including abundant geothermics. The country is home, he said, to the world’s largest plant extracting carbon dioxide directly from the air to turn it into rock through the Carbfix method — in which carbon dioxide is dissolved in water and interacts with rocks like basalt to form a solid “carbon sink.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH

NIGER 

Niger’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassoumi Massaoudou said his country supported mass vaccination to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and asserted the need for multilateral financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, to do more to help poor countries like Niger manage the economic shocks resulting from the disease. Massaoudou also spoke about the devastating effect terrorism has had on the education system in Niger and called for greater support to protect schools.

Covid-19 and the economy

Massaoudou thanked Covax, the initiative run by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the World Health Organization; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, for vaccines and expressed support for mass vaccinations to get the global economy back on track. He praised the G20 and the International Monetary Fund for its moratorium on debt and called on multilateral institutions to do more to aid development in fragile countries such has Niger.

Climate change

Massaoudou emphasized the damage that climate change has had on security and humanitarian crises and expressed commitment to the Paris agreement.

Security

Niger, a landlocked country whose security forces have been supported by the US, thanked European and other international security partners and reiterated Niger’s commitment to human rights. (His country’s security forces, among those of other countries, have been accused of rights abuses by organizations like Human Rights Watch.)

Niger also called for greater protection of schools, emphasizing that 5,000 of them have been closed from terrorist attacks with more than 700,000 students out of the classroom and 20,000 teachers out of work in his country. He also emphasized the need to address issues of climate change and development to address the problem of terrorism. — CLAIR MACDOUGALL 

MYANMAR 

Another dispute over the right to speak at the General Assembly was settled recently when Myanmar’s democratically elected government, now in opposition as the National Unity Government and supported by Aung San Suu Kyi, beat back an attempt by the military leaders who overthrew her government to speak for the country by accepting a compromise.

The military rulers also sought recognition as the country’s representative at the UN. It has named a military veteran, Aung Thurein, as its would-be ambassador, reported by PassBlue in July 2021.

Under the compromise, the current ambassador, U Kyaw Moe Tun, appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi, could continue to occupy Myanmar’s seat in the General Assembly by keeping its ambassador from speaking in the world leaders’ debate, even though the UN listed Myanmar as scheduled for Sept. 27, until Monday’s updated version removed the country from the list.

The decision about which Myanmar regime will finally get the UN seat is to be decided by the Assembly’s Credentials Committee, of which the United States, China, Russia, Bahamas, Bhutan, Chile, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Sweden are the nine members, with Sweden as the chair.

AFGHANISTAN 

Isaczai Ghulam, the ambassador of Afghanistan to the UN, appointed by the previous government of Ashraf Ghani, was scheduled to speak on Sept. 27. But over the weekend, the mission told the UN to remove Afghanistan from the list. The acting Taliban government told the UN several weeks ago that it wanted to send its own ambassador to the General Assembly, but its Credentials Committee must decide on that formality and it has not announced when it will meet to take up such considerations, along with Myanmar’s request (above).

This article was updated to correct the number of parliament seats won by women in Iceland recently. 

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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