Canada’s contributions to peace and security in Mali

Wendy Stocker Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 1 Spring 2013

The crucial decision about further military contributions is not “boots on the ground” or “no boots on the ground,” but what those boots do when they are on the ground to contribute to sustainable peace in Mali. This applies whether the boots are from Canada, France, Chad, Mali, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), or under the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

French troops landed in Mali on January 11 to stop the advance of insurgent and jihadi forces on Bamako, the capital. Canada’s provision of a heavy lift aircraft for French equipment is in contrast with well-armed responses to international calls for expeditionary missions to Afghanistan and Libya. Hindsight—or foresight—could be guiding Canada’s response. Certainly there is hesitation.

Prime Minister Harper has called for broad public input in determining Canada’s contributions to peace and security in Mali. Project Ploughshares has outlined five principles [see box] in order of priority to guide Canadian interventions. In an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs on February 14, Executive Director John Siebert elaborated on the fourth and fifth principles, which speak to non-combat military contributions.

Protection of vulnerable civilians
Protection of vulnerable civilians will win and maintain the support of the local population and should be the primary mission of Malian and international troops. Concrete military operational implications flow from this principle.

It is worth remembering that al-Qaeda and affiliated groups have a clear strategy for drawing western militaries into debilitating fights on inhospitable terrain. They use asymmetric tactics to exhaust the will and resources of their opponents. Why let them set the rules for engagement when alternative frameworks for restoring security in Mali and the broader Sahel region are available?

The actions of Canada and others in Mali should not be characterized as part of an anti-terrorism struggle. Instead, we should see Mali’s current challenges as the culmination of political, military, and ethnic breakdown in Mali, which al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and jihadi fighters have exploited.

The initial success of French, Chadian, and Malian military forces in dislodging AQIM and other insurgent forces from urban sites in northern and eastern Mali is a welcome but not definitive development. In the vast countryside AQIM and some Tuareg factions have reportedly established bases and supply lines that will permit them to carry out asymmetric attacks well into the future.

The French and other military forces with advanced technological weaponry will now be tempted to conduct search-and-destroy missions in the desert using air and drone strikes and to send special forces on raids to kill insurgents. This whack-a-mole approach actually has had counter-productive results elsewhere. As they say, for every insurgent killed another 10 brothers or cousins step forward to repel the apostate enemy.

Instead, the military mission in Mali should

  • continue to focus on protecting civilians in main population areas and along travel and trade routes;
  • keep open humanitarian assistance corridors;
  • work with neighbouring states to patrol the borders and disrupt insurgents’ supply routes; and
  • contain those who use terrorist methods, and then capture and submit them to democratic processes of justice.

Military capabilities may be needed on an interim basis for these tasks, but the function is more akin to policing and should in fact devolve over time into a policing mission rather than a military mission.

Such an operational stand by Malian, French, and other military forces may appear slow and will likely be painful. In fact, this approach may be more dangerous for the intervening military forces than air or drone strikes. But combined with humanitarian assistance, restoration of democracy, and successful peace processes with Tuaregs in the north, this is the path over time to sustainable peace in Mali.

Human rights observance
The Malian military is reportedly engaging in human rights violations and targeted killing of civilians, particularly people identified as Tuaregs. These actions are morally reprehensible and contrary to international law. But such behaviour also deepens the alienation of local populations and makes the tasks of re-establishing democracy and negotiating south-north peace much more difficult.

Former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler’s 2011 book Season in Hell,1 on his capture by AQIM, speaks eloquently to the need to observe human rights standards in confronting jihadists. He writes that some evenings in the desert were set aside for laptop shows of al-Qaeda propaganda loops. Always part of the show were pictures and videos of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba, where western human rights standards were sacrificed on the altar of the “Great War on Terror.” Fowler bitterly detests and denounces these violations of fundamental human rights.

Small arms control and DDR
Controlling and reducing the number of small arms and light weapons in Mali and the broader Sahel region should be a pressing priority for Canada and other international actors in Mali. The failure to secure weapons stockpiles during and after the UN-sanctioned mission in Libya should serve as a lesson in Mali.

ECOWAS has enacted a Convention on Small Arms, Light Weapons, their ammunition and other associated material. This legally binding sub-regional instrument can provide the framework to attack this menacing reality. Canadian police and military expertise in weapons stockpile management and control of guns in civilian possession would make an important contribution to Mali’s long-term stability.

Peace agreements often fail when combatants are not disarmed, properly demobilized, and then reintegrated into the social and economic fabric of their societies. DDR programs have been established and implemented after peace agreements were reached in many countries affected by armed violence. Again, Canada could provide leadership to define this need and plan for implementation in the medium- and longer-terms.

ECOWAS and the UN
The deployment of ECOWAS troops to Mali under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 2085 is welcome. The problems in Mali threaten security for all of West Africa, potentially destabilizing neighbouring states while exacerbating the existing refugee crisis.

As a general principle Canada should support policies and provide assistance that encourage and enable regional and sub-regional bodies such as the African Union and ECOWAS to directly engage in peace operations in their own territories—assuming, of course, that the mission is properly authorized and implemented. Neighbours know the problems better and likely are more attuned to cultural and other dynamics.

Canada should strongly consider providing financial and technical assistance to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) and to its UN successor, if AFISMA is reconstituted as a UN mission.

Governments faced with an immediate violent security threat may overlook systemic causes of violent conflict. The impact of climate change on the Sahel and Sahara in northern Africa has been identified as a deeper but probably less easily traceable cause of instability in Mali. The current challenges in Mali should be addressed with a view to creating sustainable peace in the longer term. They will include addressing the causes and impact of human-induced climate change.


1. See John Siebert’s December 15, 2011 blog posting, “Bob Fowler’s descent into al-Qaeda hell.”


5 guiding principles to Canada’s role in Mali

1. Humanitarian assistance
Provide basic humanitarian assistance (water, food, shelter, medical aid) to vulnerable civilians, including both internally displaced persons and refugees taking shelter in neighbouring countries.

2. Restoring democracy
Support political processes that will re-establish in Mali a participatory and enduring democratic culture and institutions that are responsive to citizens’ primary needs.

3. Peacebuilding processes between south and north
Provide diplomatic and other support to resolve longstanding tensions between people in the north and south of Mali; only such a resolution can ensure Mali’s continued territorial integrity and offer a defence against terrorist or jihadist incursions.

4. Protection of vulnerable civilians
Press Mali and other military forces to make protection of vulnerable civilians their primary mission, displaying the highest respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.

5. Small arms control and DDR
Address the problem of illegally circulating small arms and light weapons in Mali and its neighbours, and implement as soon as possible a program of disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation (DDR) of fighters on all sides of the conflict.



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