The military chiefs at three UN missions in Africa and the Middle East have shared how they are protecting peacekeepers from COVID-19 while also fulfilling their mandates in rapidly changing environments.
The Force Commanders overseeing “blue helmets” in Mali, South Sudan, and in the Golan, between Israel and Syria, briefed the UN Security Council during a virtual meeting held on Thursday.
These senior officials have taken appropriate measures and adapted, where necessary, taking into account their respective operational contexts and needs on the ground, the head of the UN’s Department of Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix told ambassadors.
“All of them have done so with the same commitment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to continue to achieve their vital peace and security work: from supporting political processes to observing a ceasefire, from protecting civilians to supporting capacity-building and national authorities”, he said.
No stepping back in Mali
The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, known by its French acronym, MINUSMA, has been coordinating with the government to ensure conformity with COVID-19 regulations.
Force Commander Dennis Gyllensporre reported that steps taken so far include enforcing a strict quarantine policy, prioritizing air operations, and limiting interaction with the public.
“Notwithstanding these measures, I have made it clear that this is not the time for the Force to take a step back”, he said.
While focusing on core tasks such as implementing a 2015 peace accord and protecting civilians, MINUSMA is moving to become more agile, for example, by deploying infantry units to key areas for a month at a time.
The mission continues to take action to protect peacekeepers from another threat: attacks. Last month, three blue helmets were killed and four injured when their convoy hit a roadside bomb in northern Mali.
“More proactive patrolling including night patrols and air operations around the camps have been implemented as well as support operations to combat convoy missions”, the Force Commander said.
Protecting civilians in South Sudan
Military contingents serving at the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) are faring well, despite a recent spike in inter-communal violence at the same time as the pandemic, according to their Force Commander,
Lieutenant General Shailesh Tinaikar, reported that in response to the pandemic, UNMISS has modified procedures to keep peacekeepers as safe as possible from the disease, in areas where their presence is required, such as at camps housing thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs).
The Force Commander outlined other ways UNMISS maintains its mandate, including through a “hub and spoke” approach to civilian protection.
The process sees peacekeepers deployed to conflict areas for up to three months at a time. They set up temporary “hubs” from which they conduct patrols to outlying areas, or “spokes”, in efforts to build confidence, deter violence and encourage displaced residents to return home.
“Most of these conflicts are complex in nature,” he explained.
“We do achieve success, we do save lives, but there is always a possibility if the inherent and the underlying issues which remain unresolved, if these are not addressed, this could come about once again in the future.”
Ongoing engagement in the Golan
While the pandemic has been a “significant challenge”, it has not affected mandate delivery in the Golan border area, the Acting Force Commander at the UN operation there, UNDOF, told the Council.
Brigadier General Maureen O’Brien reported that Israel and Syria are now lifting containment measures, and the UN Disengagement Observer Force is analyzing how civilians can safely enter its camps for projects.
“In Syria, curfew and inter-governorate travel restrictions have now been lifted which has allowed us to resume night patrols”, she said, while also expressing hope that inspections will recommence soon in the Israeli Occupied Golan.
Meanwhile, the Qunaytirah border crossing remains closed, though both sides have allowed passage of specialized personnel and medical equipment.
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, engagement with the sides continues.
However, Brigadier General O’Brien underlined the difficulties of operating in what she described as “a complex and sensitive environment”, noting violations and attacks in UNDOF areas of operation.