Bangladeshi peacekeepers offer medical assistance to residents in a remote village in Mali, in 2019. UN Photo
On July 3, 2023, the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs
announced the withdrawal of Bangladeshi peacekeepers from Mali.
Since the Bangladeshi peacekeeping contingent was the largest United Nations (UN) peacekeeping contingent in Mali, the Bangladeshi withdrawal from Mali is an important phase in Bangladesh’s three-decades-long participation in UN peace operations.
Participation in UN peace operations has been a source of national pride and prestige for Bangladesh since it started deploying peacekeepers to UN operations in 1988. Since then, 188,558 Bangladeshi peacekeepers have participated in 63 UN operations in 40 states across the world, and 167 Bangladeshi peacekeepers have lost their lives while serving their constitutional and international duties.
In addition to enhancing national prestige, participation in UN operations provides the country with financial and politico-diplomatic dividends. Bangladeshi peacekeepers have been lavishly commended and rewarded for their professionalism, discipline, courage and humane conduct during their service.
Moreover, participation in UN operations now constitutes an important part of Bangladesh’s emerging ‘soft power.’ In fact, prompt and enthusiastic participation in UN operations has helped Bangladesh cement its position on the international stage as a ‘model member of the UN.’
Bangladeshi participation in the UN operation in Mali has been a part of this broader process. The Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) or MINUSMA was initiated on April 25, 2013 by the UN Security Council (UNSC) at the request of the Malian government.
From 2012 onwards, the landlocked West African state is facing insurgencies, secessionist movements, inter-ethnic conflicts, political instability and foreign interventions. When MINUSMA troops were deployed to Mali in July 2013, the Malian government had essentially lost control of most of the country, and French, African and European Union (EU) troops were already deployed there.
MINUSMA was an unusually troop-heavy UN mission with a robust mandate deployed in the midst of a war, and it proved to be the costliest and second deadliest UN peace operation so far, costing the UN more than $10.3 billion and the lives of 309 peacekeepers.
Despite comprehending the risks, Bangladesh had promptly responded to the UN’s call for deployment in Mali. As of May 2023, the Bangladeshi contingent in MINUSMA was the largest in terms of the number of deployed personnel, comprising 47 staff officers, 1,331 troops and 282 police personnel.
In addition to fulfilling the traditional tasks of peacekeeping (such as base protection, patrolling, military observation and preservation of ceasefires), Bangladeshi peacekeepers in Mali routinely guarded convoys, provided the Malian people with humanitarian assistance and medical aid, and fraternised with them, thus setting an important example of civil-military cooperation.
The local population, the other national contingents in MINUSMA and the UN all have highly praised the professionalism, dutifulness, humanitarianism and strict discipline of the Bangladeshi peacekeepers in Mali.
The UN has recognised the contribution of Bangladeshi peacekeepers to MINUSMA by rewarding them regularly and repeatedly. For example, 139 Bangladeshi police personnel in MINUSMA were awarded the UN Medal on April 12, 2018.
140 Bangladeshi police personnel in MINUSMA were awarded the UN Peacekeeping Award on Sept. 21, 2021. 329 Bangladeshi peacekeepers received the UN Medal on 28 November 2022. So, the performance of Bangladeshi peacekeepers in Mali has been satisfactory and exemplary.
However, while Bangladeshi peacekeepers were highly praised by MINUSMA officials and the Malian people, the overall political situation in Mali was deteriorating. On Aug.18, 2020, the Malian government was overthrown in a military coup, and a military-controlled interim government was installed in Bamako.
On 24 May 2021, the interim Malian government was overthrown in another military coup, and a new military-controlled government was formed. Meanwhile, Bamako’s view of MINUSMA and European forces deployed in the country transformed rapidly.
The Malian government employed Russian private military contractors to fight against insurgent groups in January 2022, and Bamako’s pivot to Moscow damaged its relations with other European powers.
Consequently, European and French troops were withdrawn from Mali in June and August 2022, respectively.
At the same time, the Malian government imposed several restrictions on MINUSMA, including the suspension of the rotation of MINUSMA troops and the curtailment of their mobility. In July 2022, the Malian government detained 49 Ivorian troops upon their arrival in Bamako, accusing them of being ‘mercenaries’.
However, the Ivorian government argued that the detained Ivorian soldiers were part of MINUSMA. Since 2022, thousands of Malian citizens have participated in protests that called for the withdrawal of MINUSMA from Mali. On June 16, 2023, the Malian government formally requested the UN to withdraw its peacekeepers from Mali.
Under the UN Charter, no peace operations can be conducted on the territory of a country without the express permission of that country’s government. So, the UN had no choice but to comply with the request of the Malian government.
Accordingly, the UN Security Council voted to terminate MINUSMA on June 30, 2023, and UN peacekeepers are scheduled to conduct a phased withdrawal from Mali by 1 January 2024. As a part of the process of the withdrawal of MINUSMA, Bangladeshi peacekeepers are being withdrawn from Mali.
It should be noted that other countries participating in MINUSMA, such as Germany, have also started withdrawing their peacekeepers from Mali.
In some social media circles, the withdrawal of Bangladeshi peacekeepers from Mali has been interpreted as a sort of punishment inflicted on Bangladesh by the United Nations or the United States and it was connected to internal political dynamics in Bangladesh.
This interpretation is incongruent with reality, and such faulty interpretations are deleterious to Bangladesh’s national image and broader national interests. However, most Bangladeshis are unaware of the details of the UN peace operation in Mali, and this has allowed the misrepresentation of the situation with the Bangladeshi troop withdrawal from Mali.
It should be kept in mind that MINUSMA has been one of the most dangerous UN operations for Bangladeshi peacekeepers. Since 1988, 167 Bangladeshi peacekeepers have lost their lives while participating in UN operations. Among them, 16 have been killed in Mali.
This represents 9.58 per cent of all Bangladeshi fatalities in UN peace operations. A number of insurgent groups in Mali were responsible for these fatalities. Now that the Malian government has also turned against MINUSMA, the situation in Mali has become more dangerous for UN peacekeepers. Amidst such a situation, the withdrawal of Bangladeshi peacekeepers from Mali is a prudent and intelligent decision.
To sum up, three conclusions can be drawn from these events.
First, Bangladeshi peacekeepers in Mali have performed their duties professionally, diligently and humanely under very difficult circumstances, as attested by UN and Malian officials as well as Malian civilians.
Second, the UN Security Council has decided to end the UN operations in Mali, and accordingly, all UN peacekeepers, including Bangladeshi ones, are scheduled to withdraw from that country.
Third, the withdrawal of Bangladeshi peacekeepers from Mali has no relation whatsoever to the internal political dynamics of Bangladesh, and it is not any sort of ‘punishment’ on Bangladesh.
In fact, the recent successful visit of UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix to Bangladesh suggests that the UN is likely to recruit more peacekeepers from Bangladesh in future.
Therefore, the incident of the withdrawal of Bangladeshi peacekeepers from Mali should not be misinterpreted, and instead, the efforts and sacrifices of Bangladeshi peacekeepers for the establishment of peace and security in Mali should be duly recognised and honoured.
Md Himel Rahman is a post-graduate student at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and an analyst on international politics and strategic affairs. This article first appeared on The geopolitics on July 9, 2023.