An unwritten definition: Humanitarian intervention after Mali

Malian refugees prepare to board trucks that will relocate them from Damba camp to Mentao in Burkina Faso. The humanitarian intervention in Mali differs greatly from former interventions and will significantly influence those in the future, write Council on Foreign Relations' Amelia Wolf and Micah Zenko. Photo by: B. Sokol / UNHCR

EDITOR’S NOTE: How was the recent humanitarian intervention in Mali different from others in the past? Council on Foreign Relations research associate Amelia M. Wolf and fellow Micah Zenko analyze three unique components that will affect the purpose and likelihood of authorization and success of similar operations in the future.

While the international community is fixated on what world leaders are not doing or could be doing in Syria, their actions in Mali have been overlooked. Since the military-led coup in March 2012, the United States and its allies — particularly France and the Economic Cooperation of West African States (ECOWAS) — have been actively engaged in finding a political solution to the instability in Mali. The form of “humanitarian intervention” that has emerged differs greatly from former interventions and will significantly influence those in the future.

There are three unique components that will affect the purpose, and the likelihood of authorization and success of future humanitarian interventions.

1. Regional cooperation

Mali is one of the first large-scale interventions not led by the United States. Although France took the initiative in the early stages, the primary actors now include ECOWAS and countries that neighbor Mali. Support, personnel, training, and equipment provided by the West is necessary, but an emphasis placed on an African-led solution provides an opportunity for West Africa to demonstrate its ability to effectively address threats to regional security. Solutions developed by relevant stakeholders tend to be longer-lasting, more effective and better at addressing root causes. The successful stabilization of Mali could set a precedent for future action, diminishing the role of external actors and strengthening the role of regional actors in future United Nations intervention strategies.

2. China’s unprecedented military role

For the first time, China has committed combat troops to a U.N.-led humanitarian intervention, an action that Beijing once condemned as an illegitimate interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. Although it sent a limited number of combat troops to South Sudan in 2012 to protect Chinese engineers and doctors, reports suggest that China will commit approximately 500 to 600 combat troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali. This would be the largest commitment among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to the 11, 2000 military personnel mandated for the mission and China’s largest deployment ever to a U.N. peacekeeping operation. China has maintained a low profile in the U.N. for many years because it “did not want to be seen as changing its foreign policy radically as it rises to a global power,” as noted by Kathrin Hille. China’s national interests and foreign policy agenda frequently conflict with those of the other Security Council permanent members. However, failure to recognize and openly discuss the slow extension of Chinese foreign policy and national interests into international relations could complicate the traditional U.N. form of humanitarian intervention.

3. Counterterrorism

Post-Cold War humanitarian interventions had a specific mandate of protecting civilians. In Mali, counterterrorism has been the primary concern for all actors, particularly for the United States and France, due to a rising threat of terrorism in the region and the central role of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in national destabilization. Although threats of terrorism are cited in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2100, which established the U.N. Multidimensional Integration Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) “to support political processes in that country and carry out a number of security-related tasks.” The mandate of MINUSMA does not include a provision for combating extremists, but it does authorize the troops to “use all necessary means” to carry out security and stabilization tasks, protect civilians, U.N. staff and cultural artifacts, and enable conditions for provision of humanitarian aid.

Within and outside of U.N. action, external actors have taken the initiative to protect their national interests. France has taken the lead in fighting extremists in the north and the United States has set up a drone base in Niger to provide reconnaissance of Islamist militants. The use of United States’ drones for surveillance in the region has drastically increased and is “the latest indication of the priority Africa has become for the United States,” as Eric Schmitt wrote last week. In addition, the United States has “not ruled out equipping the aircraft with Hellfire missiles in the future,” Craig Whitlock noted. The insertion of national interests into U.N. missions could negatively impact the authorization of humanitarian intervention in future situations. This was demonstrated following the intervention in Libya, when Russia and China blocked all resolutions calling for a U.N.-mandated humanitarian intervention for the protection of civilians in Syria, citing fears that states backing intervention had alternative motives, such as “regime change.” Prioritization of national interests, and unclear or overly inclusive U.N. mandates could result in failures to authorize future interventions.

The future of humanitarian intervention remains unwritten. Actions in Mali and the surrounding region will shape its future — determining whether interventions will progress from earlier forms or become increasingly convoluted with the rise of global leaders and differing national interests.

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations. Read the original article.

About the author

  • Devex Editor

    Thanks a lot for your interest in Devex News. To share news and views, story ideas and press releases, please email We look forward to hearing from you.