Analysis | U.N. Action for Peacekeeping priorities fall short in Mali

The most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world will only become more perilous unless U.N. member states get serious about their commitments.

Daniel Henderson

Peacekeepers from the Nigerian contingent of MINUSMA provide security on an airstrip during the arrival of a U.N. fact-finding mission in Mali.
Peacekeepers from the Nigerian contingent of MINUSMA provide security on an airstrip during the arrival of a U.N. fact-finding mission in Mali. (Image: U.N. Mission in Mali on Flickr)

On June 29, the U.N. Security Council renewed the mandate of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). It marked the ninth time the mission has been renewed since a group of northern rebels fought the Malian government and sparked a military coup d’état in 2012. The rebels sought their own independent republic, and their early military successes pushed the coup leaders to accept a framework for the restoration of constitutional order. Unfortunately, as the political agreement came together, jihadist groups — seeking to establish their own Islamic state — split from the rebels, and launched an offensive that threatened Bamako, the capital of Mali. This threat required the Malian government to request the immediate intervention of French forces — given French economic and security interests in the Sahel — and a follow-up African Union force, which transformed into MINUSMA in 2013. The government and the rebels signed the Algiers Agreement in 2015, which focuses on political decentralization and the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former rebel fighters. However, the agreement does not address the jihadist groups. Since then, MINUSMA has lost 313 peacekeepers trying to support the implementation of a slow political transition and the stalled peace agreement, while also protecting civilians in a security environment dominated by weak government control, terrorist violence, inter-communal violence, and massive internal displacement. Through nine mandate renewals, the U.N. Security Council has failed to align MINUSMA’s resources with the enormous task at hand, with deadly repercussions for peacekeepers and civilians.

The “most dangerous peacekeeping mission” in the world today has been extended for another year of muddling through an impossibly difficult job. It is still mandated to accomplish two objectives: first, to support the implementation of the Algiers Agreement and Mali’s democratic transition, and second, to re-establish state authority and protect civilians in Mali’s center. Despite high-risk political and security developments, such as escalating attacks on peacekeepers, a second coup in August 2020, and mounting human rights abuses at the hands of the Mali government and their Russia-linked Wagner Group mercenaries, the mandate is largely unchanged. The Security Council has not authorized the use of any additional troops or resources. Without additional air assets and the pressure to bring about a more cooperative government in Bamako, MINUSMA will fall short on crucial Action for Peacekeeping Plus (A4P+) priorities, with deadly repercussions for peacekeepers and civilians.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres launched the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative in 2018. It declared eight commitments to improve peacekeeping operations in the face of severe challenges. To accelerate progress on these important but lofty A4P commitments, Guterres announced A4P+ in 2021 to serve as a strategic roadmap, introducing seven priorities and two cross-cutting themes for peacekeeping operations to undertake with the support of U.N. member states. Of the seven priorities, two stand out as the most critical for mission success: first, strengthening the capabilities of peacekeeping operations, and second, maintaining cooperation with host countries. A4P+ correctly identifies the issues plaguing current multidimensional peacekeeping operations, but — when actually aligning the commitments with capabilities in security environments as complex as Mali — it is clear that the political will from the Security Council is missing in action.

MINUSMA’s current capabilities simply do not match its mandate. The mission needs air assets, and it needs them now. Mali is a large country without an extensive network of improved roads, meaning that peacekeepers require air assets to respond quickly to reports of violence against civilians; to provide medical evacuation; and to ensure intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over dangerous areas. Providing peacekeepers with more air power is not a novel idea. In 2019, the secretary-general received a mandate to present a force adaptation plan, which explicitly acknowledged this shortfall and others. To the Security Council’s credit, there has been progress, but the capability shortfall, especially in air power, remains stark. Now, the need is exacerbated by the French withdrawal from Operation Barkhane in Mali, which provided additional air support requested by peacekeepers on the ground. As these forces leave, it will be far more difficult for MINUSMA to protect itself, and more importantly, to protect the civilians it is mandated to serve. Several advanced militaries in the Security Council, including the United States, United Kingdom, China, and others currently contribute troops to MINUSMA. They need to follow the lead of El Salvador, Canada, and Germany in contributing helicopters, a move that would significantly improve the mission. If members of the Security Council are genuinely committed to A4P+, then they would provide the air assets and resources MINUSMA needs to align with this priority and achieve its mandate.

Beyond the capability gap, MINUSMA, and all of Mali, suffers because of an intransigent and reactionary government in Bamako. A legitimate government’s commitment to peace and cooperation with peacekeepers may be the single most important determinant of success, as evidenced by successful peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. In Mali, one would be hard pressed to define the current government’s relationship with MINUSMA as cooperative. The May 2021 military coup and a delay in elections have thrown the political transition into jeopardy, and there is virtually no progress on the Algiers Agreement, which is now seen as inadequate because it fails to address the growing violence in the center of Mali. The government demands that MINUSMA submit requests to patrol 72 hours in advance, obliterating any chance that the mission might be flexible and responsive to violence against civilians. Mali’s government has further denied flight permits for current peacekeepers to rotate out of the country, hurting morale and mission effectiveness. Worst of all, the government itself is allegedly implicated in committing war crimes and massacres alongside its Russian-aligned Wagner Group partners. The military junta has denied MINUSMA access to the sites of these massacres, preventing the mission from investigating the allegations.

In response to these developments, the renewed mandate dictates quarterly reports on human rights violations, but Russia and China prevented any authorization for MINUSMA to independently investigate war crimes. Ironically, Mali, Russia, and China have all endorsed A4P, and yet all are actively working to weaken MINUSMA’s ability to achieve those commitments. In a final blow, immediately following the vote, Mali’s junta vowed to continue to deny MINUSMA freedom of movement. Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sanctions recently helped secure a new promise of elections in 2024, a welcome development, but the government’s track record does not inspire confidence in their reliability. With the broader sanctions lifted, the United Nations must work with ECOWAS and African Union partners to maintain targeted sanctions on assets and travel bans for Mali’s military leaders and the junta to keep the political transition on track, but also ensure that the government understands its cooperation with MINUSMA is necessary for any further sanction relief. With China and Russia blocking action at the Security Council on these types of actions, the United States, United Kingdom, and France may need to work separately with African partners to maintain pressure, or build international pressure for continued targeted sanctions through the U.N. General Assembly. So far, a pressure campaign strong enough to elicit results on political progress and cooperation remains elusive, and a key A4P+ priority that would substantially improve the mission for peacekeepers and those who rely on them remains out of reach.

MINUSMA may make progress on the other A4P+ priorities on its own over the next year, but without concrete action from member states at the Security Council, the two most critical priorities will remain unfulfilled. The good news is the new mandate strengthens adherence to the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, which prevents U.N. agencies from providing any support to non-U.N. security forces that commit human rights violations. This policy will hopefully provide MINUSMA with more leverage to deny logistical support to Mali government forces, though it is unclear whether such leverage will elicit the government’s cooperation. Additionally, the mandate requires the secretary-general to undertake an internal review by January 2023, which will hopefully spur further action on the A4P+ priorities. Unfortunately, the fact remains that without political momentum to realign its capabilities and secure a cooperative government in Mali, MINUSMA will continue to fall well short of the A4P commitments, and the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world will only become more perilous.

Daniel Henderson graduated from Georgetown University in 2020 with an M.A. in Security Studies and a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies from the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He also serves as an officer in the Ohio Army National Guard.

The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ohio Army National Guard or the U.S. government.

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