In the First Part of this comment we have seen that reference to article 51 of the UN Chapter in order to justify Operation Serval, is problematic. We will now discuss the two other legal arguments used by France.
Consent of the Malian Authorities
The argument according to which the authorities of Mali had the sovereign right to request external military intervention against the Islamist rebels and that France had the right to intervene on the basis of this invitation seems a priori powerful. Indeed, in her comments to the press just before the start of Operation Serval, Susan Rice, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, argued that any State “can support and encourage the Malian government’s sovereign request for assistance from friends and partners in the region and beyond’ and that “there was clear-cut consensus about the gravity of the situation and the right of the Malian authorities to seek what assistance they can receive”.
This should nonetheless not lead to the conclusion that third States have an unlimited right to military intervention on the basis of the request or the consent of the legitimate authorities of the State where the intervention takes place. External intervention by invitation should be deemed in principle unlawful when the objective of this intervention is to settle an exclusively internal political strife in favor of the established government which launched the invitation (see T. Christakis & K. Bannelier, “Volenti non fit injuria? Les effets du consentement à l’intervention militaire”, Annuaire Français de Droit International, 2004, at 102-138). Such a military intervention will not be in principle in violation of art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, which is inoperative in such a situation because there is no use of force of one State against another (see art. 2 §4: “in their international relations”) but two States cooperating together Military assistance on request could nonetheless be perfectly legal when its purpose is different from arbitrating in such a way an internal political strife. As we have demonstrated in our 2004 study this is for example the case when a State assists another during a joint fight against terrorism. Of course, as we emphasized in this study, the problem which arises immediately is who can make the decision that a specific group is a terrorist group. Indeed established governments often try to portray their opponents as “terrorists” in order to de-legitimate them politically and be legally able to request external help against them.
In the case of Mali there is no doubt that at least two of the three Islamist groups against whom France is intervening are “terrorist groups”. Both Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and, more recently (see §2 of S/RES 2085) the Movement of Unity and Jihad in Western Africa (MUJWA) have been placed by the UN Security Council and several States on the Al-Qaida sanctions list established and maintained by the Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011). Things are more complicated, nonetheless, concerning the Ansar Dine movement which has not yet been placed on the UN terrorist lists and which has tried to distance itself from ‘terrorism’. On the other hand the terrible practices applied to the civilian population of Mali in the occupied northern territories during the past few months (stoning, amputations, whippings and other forms of corporal punishment, destruction of cultural heritage, etc.) have been common place for the three Islamist groups.
In any case, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is not considered as a terrorist movement. The fact that this movement made a declaration in favor of this intervention against “terrorists” after the start of Operation Serval is probably an indication of the fact that some anti-government rebels themselves seem to assimilate the Ansar Dine movement with the two other Islamist groups (see communiqué N-46 of 13/01/2013 saying that the MNLA will act to help a successful outcome of the operations against terrorism – while asking the Malian Army not to cross the “line of demarcation” with Azawad, the separatist area of Northen Mali of which it has unilaterally declared the independence on 6 April 2012. See also this and this).
Interpretation of UNSC Resolution 2085
Last, but certainly not least, France said several times that it was acting within the context of UNSC Resolution 2085. This is probably the preferable legal basis for Operation Serval. On the one hand it seems pretty clear that, notwithstanding the restricted terms used by UNSC Resolution 2085, both the UN Security Council and other international organizations clearly interpreted from the beginning this Resolution as authorizing the French intervention. On the other hand France’s attitude till now indicates that this State tries to render the full realization of Resolution 2085 possible.
If we read jointly paragraphs 7, 9, 11, 13 and 14 of Resolution 2085 it seems clear that the UNSC authorized the use of force (“all necessary measures”) by an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) while urging all member States, including “interested bilateral partners” to help the deployment of AFISMA and offer “any necessary assistance in efforts to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations…”. It is well known that, due to many logistical difficulties, this UN-approved deployment was not expected to take place before September 2013. African leaders did not seem confident that a regional force could win a war against the rebels and appealed for help from Western powers. This was, for example, the case of the African Union chairman who, in January 8, called for NATO to “send forces” to Mali to help fight militant Islamists. Two days later the members of the Security Council met urgently in order to deal with the reported military movements and attacks by “terrorist and extremist groups” in the north of Mali. In a Security Council Press Statement published the 10th of January 2013, just before the French intervention, they observed that “this serious deterioration of the situation threatens even more the stability and integrity of Mali and constitutes a direct threat to international peace and security”. The members of the Security Council then:
“recall resolutions 2056 (2012), 2071 (2012) and 2085 (2012) adopted under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations as well as the urgent need to counter the increasing terrorist threat in Mali.
The members of the Security Council reiterate their call to Member States to assist the settlement of the crisis in Mali and, in particular, to provide assistance to the Malian Defence and Security Forces in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups.
The members of the Security Council express their determination to pursue the full implementation of its resolutions on Mali, in particular resolution 2085 in all its dimensions. In this context, they call for a rapid deployment of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA)…” (emphasis added).
It seems then that, confronted with “the urgent need to counter the increasing terrorist threat in Mali”, the UNSC changed its tune! The AFISMA should be deployed more rapidly but, while waiting, and in order to avoid an irreversible situation which could completely jeopardize the realization of Resolution 2085, Member States should “provide assistance to the Malian Defence and Security Forces in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups”!
This interpretation by the UNSC of Resolution 2085 in a way that authorizes not only AFISMA but also all member States to provide military assistance to the Malian Forces in order to counter the terrorists advance, has also been confirmed by the African regional body the most directly concerned, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On 12th January 2013 the ECOWAS published a Statement in which it “welcomes UN Security Council Press Release of 10th January 2013 authorising immediate intervention in Mali to stabilise the situation” and “thanks the French Government for its initiatives to support Mali”. (emphasis added).
It would then appear that, faced with the urgency of the situation, the UNSC interpreted Resolution 2085 in a way that allowed France to assist the Malian forces urgently in order to counteract the progression of the three Islamist Groups. Since then France has repeated several times that now that the progression by Islamist militants on Bamako had been halted, Africa must take the lead in Mali in a multilateral military intervention in conformity with UNSC Resolution 2085. While the “urgent interpretation” of this resolution by the UNSC and all other international actors directly involved in the wake of the French intervention and the consensus that followed concerning the legality of this intervention are probably sufficient to justify the recent events in Mali, we think that it will be useful for the UN Security Council to act in a more responsible manner and to adopt a new resolution in order to frame the exact role of France (and, potentially, other non-African actors) in Mali.
(The authors would like to thank Olivier Corten for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. The usual disclaimer applies).