Moscow's narrow view of the Mali peacekeeping mission

Last Thursday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a substantial new peacekeeping mission. The new operation--ponderously named the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)—will likely become the UN's third-largest peacekeeping mission, after those in Congo and Darfur. But just how multidimensional the force will be is a matter of debate and interpretation. In voting for the mission, Russia's UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, endorsed a narrow view of its mandate:

[W]e are disturbed by the growing shift towards the military aspects of United Nations peacekeeping. What was once the exception now threatens to become unacknowledged standard practice, with unpredictable and unclear consequences for the security of United Nations personnel and their international legal status.

Russia also doesn't want the peacekeepers getting in the business of arresting war criminals (the International Criminal Court has an ongoing investigation of alleged atrocities in Mali):

We believe that using Blue Helmets for the tasks  involved in arresting those accused by the International  Criminal Court, including through the use of force, is not part of United Nations peacekeeping and carries a  number of risks for the peacekeepers, who could find themselves required to take part in actions that should be conducted by specially trained troops.

Moscow's interpretation is at least in tension with the text of the resolution, which provides that the mission should conduct a wide range of tasks, including the following:

Stabilization of key population centres and support for the reestablishment of State authority throughout the country...to stabilize the key population centres, especially in the north of Mali and, in this context, to deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas;

To protect, without prejudice to the responsibility of the transitional authorities of Mali, civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within its capacities and areas of deployment...

To provide specific protection for women and children affected by armed conflict..

To protect the United Nations personnel, installations and equipment and ensure the security and freedom of movement of United Nations and associated personnel...

To monitor, help investigate and report to the Council on any abuses or violations of human rights or violations of international humanitarian law committed throughout Mali and to contribute to efforts to prevent such violations and abuses...

To assist the transitional authorities of Mali, as necessary and feasible, in protecting from attack the cultural and historical sites in Mali, in collaboration with UNESCO...

To support, as feasible and appropriate, the efforts of the transitional authorities of Mali, without prejudice to their responsibilities, to bring to justice those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali...

For all these tasks, the resolution "[a]uthorizes MINUSMA to use all necessary means, within the limits of its capacities and areas of deployment, to carry out its mandate." As always, there is plenty of wiggle room in the text, and the force commander will get to decide what the "limits of [the mission's] capacity" are. But it's fair to ask whether there was a meeting of the minds between Russia and other key players on the Mali mandate.

The Multilateralist

A modest proposal for shaking up the Security Council reform debate

The stagnant politics of the U.N. Security Council reform campaign are well known: While mouthing niceties about the need for reform, the current permanent council members have little interest in advancing the process. Meanwhile, the broader U.N. membership -- which would have to approve any reform -- cannot agree on a plan. The four leading aspirants for permanent seats (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan -- known as the G4) are viewed suspiciously by another group of states, who argue that they only want to expand the council's oligarchic structure rather than fundamentally alter it. 

In essence, that's where the process has been stuck for decades. Along the way, the prospects for reform have ebbed and flowed. In 1997, a Malaysian diplomat introduced a plan that won significant support but ultimately succumbed to divisions in the General Assembly. In 2005, a High-Level Panel launched by Kofi Annan developed several possible reform packages and spurred serious negotiations on a draft resolution. In 2009, negotiations formally shifted from an open-ended working group to an intergovernmental track. But that procedural change meant little in practice, and negotiations have sputtered since then.

For all the rhetoric about the urgency of reform, there's no sign that anything will change. So what might move the process forward? There's one simple but dramatic step that U.N. members seeking reform could take: stop endorsing the council's current structure through their votes. Every fall, the General Assembly elects new non-permanent members to the council. For the most part, these elections are regional deals, with decisions made long in advance of the formal voting (some regional groups even assign their slots more than a decade in advance). But the entire U.N. membership must vote, and no country can be elected without securing two-thirds support in the assembly.

Refusing to engage in the annual Security Council election process until there is reform would be a modest and proportional act of disobedience. There would be a significant collective action problem, of course, and states would have to pledge in advance to abstain. But if that cooperation could hold, the manuever might radically change the landscape. With a large bloc of states withholding votes, no new members could be elected, and the council would face an institutional crisis. Large-scale abstention could force the permanent members to engage in the reform debate in a way they have mostly avoided to this point. Even more important, it would compel the competing blocs within the General Assembly to settle their differences and forge a plan that could win the two-thirds necessary to amend the charter.

There is precedent for the use of voting power in the assembly to force council reform. In 1963, the assembly voted to increase the non-permanent seats on the council from six to ten. A few years later, the permanent members all acquiesced by ratifying those amendments. Why? In large part, they agreed because newly decolonized states in Asia and Africa implicitly threatened to use their voting power to stuff the council with their members and exclude states from eastern and western Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. As a U.S. State Department official wrote at the time, the U.S. "would do better to acquiesce in enlargement than fight it." 

If U.N. members are serious about forcing Security Council reform, they should stop complaining -- and then stop voting every year to endorse the body's current structure. The fact that they are not prepared to do so says something important about political realities at the United Nations: Many members ostensibly in favor of reform prefer the council they know to a reformed council they don't.