The UN multidimensional peace operation in Mali, MINUSMA, faces increasing insecurity in the region and has tense relations with the host country’s authorities. The time is ripe to reflect on the non-negotiable aspects of peacekeeping and the type of partnership that can be forged with the Malian authorities.
On 5 February 2023, the Malian transitional authorities demanded of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) that the director of the Human Rights Division, who also serves as the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mali, leave the country within 48 hours. This happened after a representative of Malian civil society irritated the Malian authorities with the content of her brief at a UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting only days earlier. The vice president of a Malian human rights organisation reported mixed human rights results in joint operations conducted by the Malian military and the Wagner Group, a Russian private military group with close ties to the Kremlin.
This episode was the last in a series of setbacks that MINUSMA has experienced, mainly connected with deteriorating relations with the authorities and the worsening insecurity in the region due to jihadist insurgents and intercommunal violence. What began in 2013 as a mission to support the Malian state in creating durable peace with northern groups, restoring its authority, and protecting civilians has since been expanded in mandate and geographical scope to an unsustainable degree. The level of insecurity greatly impacts peacekeepers. MINUSMA is the most deadly mission in the history of UN peacekeeping, and it is peacekeepers from neighbouring countries who risk their lives the most.
Mali suffered two military coups in 2020 and 2021. The transitional authorities currently in power as a result enjoy strong popular support in a context of rising insecurity and strong anti-French and anti-Western sentiments. Against a backdrop of rising insecurity and diplomatic tensions with France, the Malian authorities demanded an end to the French Operation Barkhane, which was working with Malian defence forces in counterterrorist operations. However, the crisis overwhelmed all national, regional, and international forces. The transitional authorities replaced the French forces with Wagner Group operatives as Moscow and Bamako continue to strengthen their relations.
Yet despite some military victories and the triumphalist tone of the Malian authorities, the situation continues to worsen. Jihadist attacks are increasing, with groups active throughout the entire country. For 2022, Human Rights Watch reported hundreds of killings of civilians by jihadist groups and numerous deaths of Malian defence force members. The Malian defence forces and their foreign allies have also been implicated in civilian assaults and deaths during counterterrorist operations, including the alleged execution of 300 men in custody in Moura in March 2022 and alleged rapes of women by Malian and foreign soldiers. The Malian authorities have denied UN human rights investigators access to the sites. Moreover, the total number of internally displaced people in Mali now stands at 422,000.
MINUSMA is thus evolving in a challenging context. One important obstacle is the anti-MINUSMA sentiment in the Malian population, nourished by years of military presence without improvement in the security situation. Rumours of favouritism toward northern populations, and rumours accusing MINUSMA of secretly trying to partition Mali and of working with the terrorist groups, as well as disinformation campaigns linking the UN mission to “Western colonialist forces,” have exacerbated the hostility. Other key obstacles include the loss of an essential partnership to ensure MINUSMA’s security following the termination of Barkhane, and the tense relationship between the mission and the Malian authorities, who restrict the mission’s movement and curtail its ability to fulfill its human rights mandate.
Additionally, the mission is affected by regional and international dynamics. The insecurity related to jihadism and organised crime in the Sahel is regional. Nevertheless, Mali has a tense relationship with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and Mali decided in 2022 to pull out of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Moreover, the mission has evolved in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and escalating rivalries between Russia and the West. Thus, in addition to Mali’s political challenges and transnational insecurity, MINUSMA is caught between several international geopolitical issues.
Nevertheless, MINUSMA benefits the Malian authorities, population, and regional peace dynamics. With 12,300 troops, it is a deterrent force in the territory. It helps the population access state services and supports the defence and security forces with logistical support and training. Moreover, since 2013 MINUSMA has supported hundreds of Quick Impact Projects (QIPs), including the construction and optimisation of gendarmeries, police stations, and bridges, as well as agriculture and media projects. Without the mission, the security situation would deteriorate. However, the current situation requires significant readjustments in the case of a mission’s renewal.
Militarisation in Mali
Currently, Malian authorities and its foreign partners are focused entirely on military solutions to tackle the insecurity. MINUSMA must work in a context in which militarised solutions are prioritised. Yet the prioritisation of military means by Mali and different regional and international partners, including France, has not produced the expected results. Multidimensional peace missions act on multiple fronts—security, development, and humanitarian—to build durable peace. Humanitarian and development practitioners, especially in the case of Mali and MINUSMA, have already criticised the prioritisation of military solutions.
Focusing on military means steers the conversation away from political and social issues and the complexity of peacebuilding, which should be included in the UN’s multidimensional priorities. The transitional authorities have communicated to the UNSC that security is a prerequisite for implementing other mandates, including human rights. This emphasis also impacts the Malian authorities’ position on distributing resources. With the resources of MINUSMA already stretched, this might have implications for the prioritisation of future projects. Furthermore, the importance of militarisation reinforces a dichotomous view where only allies and enemies exist, opening the door to human rights violations for those considered enemies of the state. What is the role of a UN peace mission in this context?
The question remains: can MINUSMA fulfill its multidimensional mandate? Last January, the options brought to the UNSC were an increase of uniformed personnel, reconfiguration of the mission assets to target specific priorities, and finally, withdrawal of uniformed personnel and conversion of MINUSMA into a political mission. Meanwhile, the transitional authorities expect the UN mission to work directly with the Malian Armed Forces in counterterrorist operations and to provide logistical and technical support. There are important structural and political reasons within the UN why a peace operation cannot be turned into an offensive military operation. However, given the tensions with the transitional authorities and the vulnerable state in which the withdrawal of the French operation has left MINUSMA, the security challenge is decisive for the mission and its relationship with the host country.
Decisions made by the UNSC could significantly impact peacekeeping practices. Building a true partnership with the authorities of Mali is crucial. Mali is free to choose its military partners and to respond to insecurity in the country as it sees fit. MINUSMA needs to adapt to the situation to remain beneficial for the population, and the Malian transitional authorities must take this UN tool seriously, which means granting it a degree of autonomy to fulfill its mandate and avoiding antagonism to score populist points.
Vanessa Gauthier Vela is a PhD candidate in International Relations/Political Science at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Her research examines militarisation and power relations processes in the case of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
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