Amid Unprecedented Violence, Escalation of Terrorist Attacks in West Africa, United Nations Regional Office Needs Greater Role, Speakers Tell Security Council
The United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) has an increasingly important role as the countries in the region seek to counter an unprecedented level of violence, relentless terrorism and other cross-border threats, speakers said today, as the Security Council continued to discuss the Office’s mandate renewal.
“Stakes are high in the region this year, both in terms of security and political developments,” said Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Special Representative and Head of UNOWAS, calling for the Council’s continued full support to his Office.
Presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on the Office in a biannual briefing, he said that since July, the region has experienced a “devastating” surge in terrorist attacks against military and civilian targets, with alarming humanitarian consequences.
In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, deaths from terrorist attacks jumped five-fold from 2016 to more than 4,000 in 2019, with the geographic focus of attacks shifting eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso, increasingly threatening West African coastal States, he said. In Burkina Faso, casualties surged from about 80 in 2016 to more than 1,800 in 2019, the number of displaced persons rose 10-fold to about 500,000, and an additional 25,000 sought refuge in other countries.
Stressing the importance of regional cooperation, he recalled that at a summit on 21 December, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a 2020-2024 action plan to eradicate terrorism in the subregion and pledged to mobilize $1 billion internally. UNOWAS also worked closely with the Mano River Union to resuscitate the Basin’s cross-border security and confidence-building measures.
In the ensuing debate, Council members expressed concern about the spread of terrorism and organized crime in the region, including to previously unaffected countries, and its humanitarian impact. They roundly condemned attacks against civilians, security and defence forces, as well as peacekeepers, stressing that intercommunal and sectarian violence is jeopardizing regional growth, and requires development-focused political and security approaches to tackle poverty, unemployment and other underlying causes of instability.
The speakers for Belgium and South Africa called for effective steps to resolve violent clashes between farmers and herders, with the latter welcoming collaboration between UNOWAS, the Peacebuilding Support Office and the Peacebuilding Fund to support cross-border programmes in that regard.
Tunisia’s delegate noted that the security situations in the Sahel, West Africa and the Maghreb are inextricably linked, while his Russian Federation counterpart said that the real trigger of the current crisis was the reckless action of those who wreaked havoc in Libya. If the situation in that country is not stabilized, it will hardly be possible to achieve peace and stability in the Sahel, he added.
They agreed that that the Multinational Joint Task Force and the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (G-5 Sahel) require more international support and joined other Council members in calling for the strengthening of UNOWAS mandate, which is set to expire on 31 January. In December, the Council decided to renew the mission for one month to have more time to examine the Secretary-General’s proposal for the mandate.
Niger’s delegate recommended that UNOWAS be given a mandate to address the challenges posed by terrorism and intercommunal conflict, in addition to supporting political processes. He cautioned that combating terrorism accounts for 15 to 30 per cent of national budget, diverting resources from other socioeconomic priorities such as sustainable development.
Indonesia’s delegate said that the Council should task UNOWAS with: continuing its good offices roles, including in the context of electoral processes or peace processes; conducting regional political and security analysis; and enhancing synergies and complementariness with the United Nations country team, regional and subregional organizations.
France’s delegate, pointing to the region’s strategic importance for her country and the European Union, said that President Emmanuel Macron will meet on 13 January with the Presidents of the G-5 Sahel countries and other multilateral partners to devise a common road map, expressing support for the renewal of UNOWAS mandate, with its coordination role augmented.
Germany’s delegate, expressing deep concern over increased terrorist acts and both ethnic and social conflict, said that cross-cutting issues aggravating such challenges must be reflected in the renewed UNOWAS mandate, including the security implications of climate change.
Many Council members - including the speaker for Viet Nam, Council President for January, and the representative of the United States - also stressed the need for the peaceful holding of upcoming presidential elections in six West African countries – Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Niger and Togo, as some tensions are foreseen.
Today’s meeting was the Council’s first formal meeting in 2020, with Estonia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia and Viet Nam replacing Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Kuwait, Peru and Poland as non-permanent members.
Also speaking today were the representatives of the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, China and the United Kingdom.
The meeting began at 10 a.m. and ended at 11:39 a.m.
MOHAMED IBN CHAMBAS, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), introducing the Secretary-General’s report of the activities of the Office from 1 July to 31 December 2019 (document S/2019/1005), said that since July the region has experienced a “devastating surge in terrorist attacks against military and civilian targets”, with alarming humanitarian consequences. The unprecedented terrorist violence and relentless attacks have shaken public confidence. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, causalities from terrorist attacks have increased five-fold in recent years, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone, as compared with an estimated 770 deaths in 2016. The geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso, increasingly threatening West African coastal States. In Burkina Faso, the number of people killed has increased from about 80 in 2016 to more than 1,800 in 2019, with the number of displaced persons having increased 10-fold to about half a million, in addition to 25,000 who have sought refuge in other countries.
Terrorism, organized crime and intercommunal violence are often intertwined in peripheral areas where the State’s presence is weak, he explained. In those places, extremists provide safety and protection to populations in exchange of loyalty. At the July 2019 High-level Conference on Counter-Terrorism and Prevention of Violent Extremism, held in Nairobi, the Secretary-General emphasized that counter-terrorism responses must focus on gaining the trust and support of local populations.
Many solid frameworks, resolutions and declarations already exist at the strategic level to address the ongoing challenges, he said. At a summit on 21 December, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a 2020-2024 action plan to eradicate terrorism in the subregion and pledged to mobilize $1 billion internally. The African Union-Lake Chad Basin Commission Regional Stabilization Strategy for the Lake Chad Basin is a regional approach that sets the parameters for early warning and early engagement on all forms of local conflicts. UNOWAS also worked closely with the Mano River Union to resuscitate the Basin’s cross-border security and confidence-building measures. Farmer-herder clashes remain some of the most violent local conflicts, which are exacerbated by the impact of climate change. It is important that farmers and herders coexist peacefully.
There are positive developments as well, he continued. The Gambia has successfully concluded the second round of public consultations on a new Constitution and conducted a truth, reconciliation and reparations process. Encouraging dialogues are ongoing in Sierra Leone, Mauritania and Senegal with a view to promoting national unity. In the months ahead, presidential elections will be held in six West African countries, with Guinea-Bissau having conducted a presidential election last year. Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Niger are also preparing for their polls. The United Nations calls on national stakeholders in Guinea to overcome differences and ensure the holding of peaceful legislative elections next month. UNOWAS is continuing to urge Member States to adopt or implement laws to promote the participation of women and youth in elections. “Stakes are high in the region this year, both in terms of security and political developments,” he said, calling for the Council’s continued full support to UNOWAS as its mandate is renewed.
ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) said that despite multidimensional efforts, the security situation in the Sahel remains extremely worrying, with more than 700 terrorist attacks in 2019 – particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger - undermining regional stability and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Reaffirming his country’s support for the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel and the Organization’s support plan for the subregion, he recommended that UNOWAS be given a mandate to address the challenges posed by terrorism and intercommunal conflict, in addition to supporting political processes. Recalling that Niger is the current Chair of ECOWAS, he said the member States of that grouping are committed to promoting good governance, democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law. He went on to discuss the economic impact of the security situation, emphasizing that combating terrorism accounts for 15 per cent to 30 per cent of national budgets. The 2020-2024 ECOWAS action plan for eradicating terrorism is set to cost $2.3 billion, of which $1 billion will be raised through internal resources. While it has carried out some successful operations, the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (G-5 Sahel) has yet to become fully operational due to a lack of financial and material resources, he said, urging the international community to come forward with predictable financing. More than ever, West Africa and the Sahel need international solidarity and concrete action to ensure that democratic gains are not set back by the criminal activities of armed terrorist groups threatening the very foundation of statehood in the region.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium) said that the security situation is deteriorating, with terrorist attacks and intercommunal violence having a direct impact on the humanitarian situation for hundreds of millions of innocent people. Special attention must be given to conflict between farmers and herders. Reviewing the situation in particular countries, he said that the growing number of terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso is jeopardizing regional development and stability, while in Nigeria ongoing attacks by Boko Haram remain a cause for concern. He praised the courage and sacrifice of the security forces but emphasized that the fight against terrorism must be carried out in line with international human rights and humanitarian law. If not, success will be ephemeral, he said, underscoring the need for a holistic approach that addresses violent extremism, good governance, and sustainable and inclusive development.
ANNE GUEGUEN (France), emphasizing the region’s strategic importance for France and the European Union, said that recent years have seen progress in human development and democracy. However, the security situation in the Sahel is deteriorating, with grave humanitarian impacts that include a growing number of internally displaced persons. She noted that the Presidents of France and the G-5 Sahel countries, together with multilateral partners, will meet on 13 January in Pau, France, to reaffirm their joint commitment and to define a common road map. Warning that upcoming elections could be sources of tension in several countries, she said it would be useful for the United Nations to provide electoral assistance to those States that request it. She went on to say that France supports strengthening UNOWAS when the Office’s mandate comes up for renewal, with its coordination role augmented and its reports including a discussion and recommendation on the impact of climate change.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) praised the peaceful holding of elections in some West African countries but expressed concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger and massive displacement causing instability in the region. He also condemned attacks on humanitarian workers. The G-5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force should be given enough resources to conduct their cross-border operations. He also called for the G-5 Sahel to deepen cooperation with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). Women and youth must be given expanded roles in peace and decision-making processes. A lack of opportunities exposes local populations to recruitment by armed groups. As the need for cooperation grows in the fight against terrorism, UNOWAS should be given sufficient resources and a clear mandate to work with regional partners. Only through coordinated action can root causes be addressed and the gaps in sustainable development be closed.
GERT AUVÄÄRT (Estonia) noted worrisome trends in the Secretary-General’s report and voiced concern about negative developments in West Africa and the Sahel. Condemning the latest terrorist attack in Burkina Faso on 4 January, he said the transnational nature of the threat demands a response driven by strong cross-regional collaboration. Subregional groups, as well as the G-5 Sahel Joint Force and the French-led Barkhane operation – to which Estonia contributes – have been conducting successful counter-terrorism activities. However, he noted the growing number of violent attacks and called for full political ownership by countries of the region. “Effective State presence including adequately trained military presence is of key importance,” he said, adding that all perpetrators of violence must be held accountable and the root causes of conflict should be addressed through peacebuilding and preventive diplomacy. In addition, the impact of climate change on livelihoods in the region must be taken into account.
HALIMAH DESHONG (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) welcomed enhanced engagement by ECOWAS, along with Chad and Mauritania, in responding to terrorism, as well as political dialogues in Liberia and Senegal, and constitutional reform efforts in the Gambia. She expressed concern over the persistent terrorist threat, and humanitarian and development issues, noting that UNOWAS is strategically placed to ensure complementarity among national security plans, guaranteeing that a comprehensive vision exists to tackle violent extremism and organized crime. Millions of people in the region are negatively affected by displacement, food insecurity or the lack of basic services, and any solution to such instability must target the causes of conflict. Strategies must incorporate elements of sustainable development, climate adaptation and human rights protection in line with national laws, she said, adding that support should be mobilized for climate adaptation in the immediate term.
WU HAITAO (China) said that overall, the countries of West Africa and the Sahel are experiencing political stability and sustained economic growth. However, some countries are still confronting security risks. China supports African countries solving African problems in an African way, with the international community providing assistance. He noted China’s recent delivery of assistance to the African Standby Force worth 200 million renminbi, as well as its contribution to counter-terrorism efforts and the development of the G-5 Sahel Joint Force. Emphasizing that extreme poverty is an underlying cause of instability, he said it is important to invest more in Africa, enhance trade with the continent and eliminate poverty with a particular focus on educational and employment opportunities for youth. He added that United Nations country teams, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other entities must bring forth their respective strengths and increase their coordination with UNOWAS.
JAMES PAUL ROSCOE (United Kingdom) said that the exponential increase in violence, particularly in central Mali and all of Burkina Faso, between 2018 and 2019 is exacerbating a perilous humanitarian situation. The Council needs to think if enough is being done in that regard, he said, adding that States in the region must ensure humanitarian access, as well as the security of humanitarian workers. The Council might also consider bringing coherence to the various regional security initiatives. He added that help must be extended to those States holding elections this year to prevent acts of violence or abuses of power. Citizens must be able to cast ballots without fear of retribution. He noted a growing recognition in the region of the need to address the root causes of conflict, as well as the role States can play to stem abuses by their security forces and to ensure inclusive and accountable basic services.
MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) said that his delegation remains concerned about the spread of terrorism and criminal activity in West Africa and the Sahel, despite some positive developments. As the Council considers the renewal of the UNOWAS mandate, it should task the Mission with: continuing its good offices roles, including in the context of electoral processes or peace processes; conducting regional political and security analysis, as well as examinations of the root causes of instability; and enhancing synergies and complementariness with the United Nations country team, regional and subregional organizations. It is crucial to support countries in the region as they combat terrorism and transnational organized crime, he said, also calling for support for the G-5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force and for State capacity-building. Underlining the need to tackle the root causes of instability, he said security should be part of a wider strategy in which countries of the region – with international support – intensify efforts to address poverty, inequality, marginalization and the lack of services.
CHERITH NORMAN CHALET (United States) stressed that UNOWAS’ work is more important than ever, as it is a regional leader in preventive diplomacy, expressing her country’s support for the Office, as the Council discusses the renewal of UNOWAS mandate in the coming weeks. Voicing concerns about the spike in violence and criminal activities in the border region straddling Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, she condemned terrorist attacks in the subregion and expressed frustration at restricted humanitarian access to millions of people in need. Calling on West African countries to improve access to education and jobs, she said that these measures will go a long way in countering violent extremism and terrorism. The United States is particularly concerned about the impact of instability in Mali on the wider Sahel region, she said, urging greater efforts to meet implementation benchmarks for peace agreement. “2020 is a critical year,” she said, as presidential and legislative elections are held in six West African countries. While welcoming the holding of elections in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau in 2019, as well as positive democratic developments in the Gambia, she urged other countries in the region to ensure fundamental principles, such as freedom of expression and assembly, prioritizing dialogue over violence to address differences.
XOLISA MABHONGO (South Africa) joined other speakers in voicing concern about the continued attacks against civilians, security and defence forces, as well as peacekeepers in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Lake Chad Basin countries. “It is disturbing that the terrorist attacks are spreading to other countries of the region not previously affected,” he said. Expressing concern about the increase in intercommunal violence, he called for effective measures to resolve disputes between herders and farmers and welcomed collaboration between UNOWAS, the Peacebuilding Support Office and the Peacebuilding Fund to support cross-border programmes in that regard. Hailing the strong political will demonstrated at the recent ECOWAS extraordinary summit on terrorism, he said the region’s stern determination should be met with intensified support from international partners. The implementation of the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel and the United Nations Support Plan for the Sahel are important parts of a holistic response, he said, encouraging UNOWAS to collaborate with ECOWAS, especially in view of elections planned across the region for 2020.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) expressed deep concern over increased terrorist acts and both ethic and social conflict, among other tensions in the region. Cross-cutting issues aggravating such challenges must be reflected in the renewed UNOWAS mandate, including the security implications of climate change. More also must be done to address gender inequality, as women’s full and equal participation in decision-making substantially increases the chances for sustainable peace in the region. He voiced concern about rights violations by terrorists, likewise stressing that human rights and the rule of law must not be set aside in the fight against terrorism. “To effectively address these cross-cutting issues, integrative and coordinated approaches are key,” he said, encouraging UNOWAS to continue its collaboration with regional partners and linking any international engagement hand-in-hand with the principles of regional and local ownership.
MONCEF BAATI (Tunisia) said that security in the Sahel, West Africa and the Maghreb are inextricably linked. Noting the pivotal role being played by UNOWAS, he hoped that the Council would approve a strengthening of its functions. He expressed deep concern at the growing number of terrorist attacks and the worsening of transnational criminal activities, adding that tension between herders and farmers and growing religious and ethnic conflict are creating fertile ground for terrorists and extremists while also prompting large population displacements. He commended the efforts of the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram and the G-5 Sahel Joint Force, stressing the need to build their respective capacities. Political and security approaches must be development-focused in order to tackle root causes of insecurity. For West Africa and the Sahel, the United Nations integrated strategy is key in that regard.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) said that the geographic area of terrorist activity, drug trafficking and organized crime in the Sahel is expanding, while extremist ideology is finding new adherents. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have been particularly hard hit, he said, reaffirming his country’s full support for their fight against terrorism. The threat of instability hangs over the countries of the Gulf of Guinea. Views differ as to the sources of the region’s problems, he said, but if one is to look back several decades, the problems are not new and local authorities were able to mitigate them. The real trigger of the current crisis was the reckless action of those who wreaked havoc in Libya, he said, emphasizing that if the situation in that country is not stabilized, it will hardly be possible to achieve peace and stability in the Sahel. He welcomed the pledges made at the recent ECOWAS summit to mobilize funds to combat jihadists and agreed that the G-5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force require more international support.
DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam), Council President for January, speaking in his national capacity, encouraged greater national, regional and international efforts to consolidate fragile peace and address development challenges in the region. He voiced concern about violent extremism, terrorism and crime — blended threats that create a “perfect storm” undermining peace in any country. Welcoming the 2019 presidential election in Guinea-Bissau, he called on Togo, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Ghana to likewise ensure successful elections in 2020, and more broadly expressed support for all efforts that enhance regional and international cooperation to tackle the causes of insecurity, and the related threat of climate change. He also expressed support for the G-5 Sahel Joint Force in fighting terrorism and called for continued international support.