Russia has vetoed efforts to keep a team of United Nations experts in Mali who had accused foreign fighters – a veiled reference to Russia’s Wagner mercenary force – of involvement in widespread abuses in the military-run West African country.
Thirteen of the UN Security Council’s 15 members backed a proposal on Wednesday that would have extended sanctions for one year on Mali and would have kept the experts in place.
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But Russia exercised its veto power at the UN meeting to block the extension proposal led by France and the United Arab Emirates.
China abstained from the vote.
Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said that the sanctions were first put in place in 2017 to support a peace agreement in the long-troubled country.
“It is fundamentally important that UN Security Council sanctions deal purely with that issue and not be used as a means of foreign influence on Mali, and that is something that the panel of experts of the Security Council has been involved in,” Nebenzia said.
Russia proposed extending the sanctions for one final year but wanted an immediate end to the independent monitoring team.
Western powers have accused Russia of retaliating against the UN experts after they spoke critically about actions by Malian forces and their “foreign security partners” – a clear reference to Wagner forces operating in the country.
Independent UN sanctions monitors in Mali recently reported to the Security Council that Malian soldiers and their foreign security partners, believed to be Russian mercenaries, were using violence against women and other “grave human rights abuses” to spread terror.
UN rights investigators had also accused Malian troops and foreign forces – presumed to be Wagner – of being behind a massacre of at least 500 people in the central Malian town of Moura in March 2022.
Mali has shifted sharply to Russia after back-to-back coups in 2020 and 2021, becoming one of the few nations to back Moscow at the UN over its invasion of Ukraine.
Mali’s military rulers have also kicked out French forces, who were battling fighters affiliated with the ISIL (ISIS) group, and UN peacekeepers from the country.
Deputy US ambassador to the UN Robert Wood told the council that Russia wanted to eliminate the independent monitoring “to stifle publication of uncomfortable truths about Wagner’s actions in Mali, which require attention”.
The US has accused Wagner, which has about 1,000 fighters in Mali, of engineering the abrupt request by Mali’s military for the 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force to leave the country. The decade-long operation is due to shut down by the end of the year.
Pointing to rising uncertainties in Mali, the United Kingdom’s envoy at the council meeting James Kariuki called Russia’s veto “reckless”.
“This will reduce the council’s oversight and engagement on Mali’s peace process at a critical juncture,” he said.