MINUSMA, or the end of multilateralism in Mali

By: Dan Sanaren

Photo Credits: MONUSCO Photos via WikimediaCommons

After 10 years of continuous presence, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has seen its mandate terminated at the request of the Malian government. As such, the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous vote on 30 June 2023 has officially ended one of the UN’s largest, deadliest, and costliest peacekeeping interventions, raising important questions about human security, stability, and Mali’s ability to address the prolonged crisis in the Sahel. As UN troops are expected to fully withdraw from Mali by December 31, 2023, there is doubt about MINUSMA’s success and the country’s future. This article therefore aims to explain the context of MINUSMA’s end and the tensions that led to it, as well as the implications for Mali’s future. 

Background on MINUSMA and the mandate

MINUSMA was established in April 2013 through the UN Security Council Resolution 2100, which allowed the UN to take over the peacekeeping mission carried out by the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) after the latter faced logistical and budgetary challenges. Both interventions, alongside the French Opération Serval, aimed to stabilise the country after the 2012 Tuareg Rebellion, and the subsequent proliferation of jihadist groups.

With its original mandate, the mission was supposed “to stabilise key population centres, especially in the north, deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas”. However, with certain changes and shifts in the conflict, including the implementation of jihadist groups in the central regions of the country, MINUSMA’s mandate was adapted to reflect these new challenges. Thus, in Resolution 2295 in 2016, the Security Council extended MINSUMA’s mandate to Central Mali. 

In 2022, MINUSMA’s mandate focused particularly on monitoring and supporting the implementation of the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, support for the re-establishment of the state’s authority in the centre of the country, the protection of civilians, promotion as well as the protection of human rights and humanitarian assistance.

To carry out this mandate and to address the multidimensional crisis in Mali, MINUSMA had at its disposal, the largest budget of all UN Peacekeeping missions, accounting for roughly 1.26 billion USD, and a force of 13,289 military personnel, 1,920 police personnel, and 1,968 civilian staff. The latter includes specific divisions working on the promotion of human rights, gender equality and the protection of children and women. However, despite the scope of the mission, the UN Security Council unanimously decided to end MINUSMA’s mandate.

The United Nations as a new arena for Mali

The end of MINUSMA was requested by the Malian junta, in power since the military coup of May 2021. Specifically, it was announced by Mali’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdoulaye Diop, during his speech at the UN Security Council on June 16, 2023. Denouncing the failure, as well as the inadequacy of MINUSMA’s mandate in Mali, Diop declared that “MINUSMA appears to become part of the problem, by fuelling communal tensions, exacerbated by allegations of extreme gravity, and that bring prejudice to peace, reconciliation, and to national cohesion in Mali”. Claiming that Mali is capable of addressing the security situation on their own, Diop, on behalf of the Malian government, demanded “the withdrawal of MINSUMA without delay.”

Since consent is a core principle of peacekeeping, Mali effectively ended the mission in the face of an expected unanimous vote in the Security Council. The request to terminate the mission also follows a repeated negative public assessment of MINUSMA’s performance, such as by Mali’s interim Prime Minister, Abdoulaye Maïga, at the  United Nations General Assembly in September 2022. While praising the sincere cooperation with Russia, he stated that “nearly 10 years after its establishment, the objectives for which MINUSMA was deployed in Mali have not been achieved”.

During the vote on MINUSMA’s renewal, members of the Security Council regretted its end and several expressed concern about the Mali situation. Indeed, while adopting Resolution 2690 (2023), presented by the French delegation, countries such as Ghana, the United States, Japan, Brazil, Switzerland, Malta, the United Kingdom, Albania, and Ecuador declared that they would have liked to see the mission to continue in light of the security situation in the Sahel. In addition, some delegations condemned the different decisions taken by Mali’s military government in the weeks preceding the vote, notably those that aimed to limit the activities of the peacekeeping force or related to Mali’s cooperation with the Wagner group.

On the other hand, the Russian and Chinese delegations acknowledged the sovereign decision made by Mali, with Russia reiterating its support to the junta. Russia’s support to the military government, headed by Colonel Assimi Goïta, was particularly instrumental in Mali’s sovereigntist approach to international relations, and its refusal of old partnerships with the West. When in January 2022 the military junta failed to follow the transition calendar, Russia, alongside China, blocked the UN’s endorsement of the sanctions imposed on the country by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Similarly, a few months later, in April 2022, Russia blocked France’s request for an independent investigation into the Moura massacre, where Mali claimed to have eliminated 203 jihadist militants. Over a year after the massacre, a UN Human Rights Office’s report concluded that at least 500 people were killed in Moura, the majority summarily executed by the Malian army and foreign military personnel, allegedly part of the Wagner Group.

The deteriorating relations between MINUSMA and Mali

Moura is a more recent example of Mali’s discontent with the UN peacekeeping mission in the country. MINUSMA’s mandate covered key aspects of Mali’s political and security process, including the monitoring of the Peace Agreement and abuses committed by warring parties. It also constituted a reliable source of information on both issues and was therefore able to rightfully accuse, or investigate the Malian army if needed. This information was notably presented in the recurrent UN Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation in Mali, which in 2021 identified 1880 human rights violations in the country, with some of them linked to Malian state forces. MINUSMA therefore represented a challenge to Malian authorities, which have continuously been accused of abuses by various human rights organisations. The mission’s focus on human rights was seen by the military junta as impeding Mali’s ability to address the security situation. 

Furthermore, MINUSMA’s mandate was often seen as inadequate by Mali’s authorities, with officials often requesting a more offensive, counter-terrorism-centred force instead of one focusing mostly on the protection of civilians. Several officials have also claimed MINUSMA to be inefficient, notably with the persistence of violence against civilians in areas marked by jihadist presence. The latter point can be partially accepted, as operationally, MINUSMA was limited, and could mainly protect the larger cities and localities close to its bases, as well as some major communication axes.

Frictions between Mali and the mission have been illustrated through the government’s limitation of MINUSMA’s activities. Namely, since 2022, and specifically following the Moura massacre, Mali established strict controls over the mission’s movements. During a Security Council session on June 29, 2022, Mali’s Ambassador to the UN, Issa Konfourou, declared:

“Mali’s government has reiterated its firm opposition to the freedom of movement of MINUSMA in the execution of its mandate related to the field of human rights. (…) [P]er imperatives of respect of Mali’s sovereignty, coordination, and security, MINUSMA’s movements can not be executed without the approval of competent Malian authorities. Similarly, Mali is unable to guarantee the freedom of movement for MINUSMA’s investigations without the previous approval of the government.”  

In addition, Mali had previously suspended all rotations of MINUSMA troops during the summer of 2022, involving more than 50 states contributing to the mission. Another dispute opposed Mali to Côte d’Ivoire, following the arrest of 49 Ivorian soldiers part of the National Support Elements to the MINUSMA. The soldiers were accused of conspiracy against the government and sentenced to 20 years in prison before being pardoned by Mali’s junta leader Assimi Goïta, as a sign of diplomatic good faith towards Côte d’Ivoire.

 MINUSMA, and local perceptions of populations

Sour relations with Mali’s government also arose at a time of a “crisis of legitimacy” surrounding UN interventions. Several countries hosting UN missions have recently experienced an anti-UN surge, with protests in Mali, but also in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Malian protests revealed popular discontent among the population, with only 23 percent of urban inhabitants in Mali declaring themselves satisfied with MINUSMA in February 2023. A recent report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), presenting results from four years of research in Central Mali, the most conflict-affected region, reflects a relatively negative opinion of MINUSMA. In October 2022, about 32 per cent of Central Mali’s population was satisfied with MINUSMA’s work, with a consequent drop from February 2022, which amounted to 45 per cent of the population.

Unsatisfaction of local populations usually stems from MINUSMA’s inability to implement its Protection of Civilians mandate successfully. Particularly,  populations in Central Mali claim that they received little consideration from the mission, which was often accused of being hard to reach and unresponsive in the face of attacks and jihadist activity. Nonetheless, MINUSMA’s civilian component was better appreciated, as it allowed for the provision of humanitarian aid, and was a source of employment in the region.

What implications for Mali after MINUSMA’s end?

While MINUSMA might seem flawed, it provided stability to conflict-affected areas, particularly by providing security to key cities and allowing for the arrival of humanitarian goods to several areas in the Centre and the North of the country. It is therefore clear that local populations will be the most affected by MINUSMA’s withdrawal from Mali. This includes further economic vulnerability, through the loss of livelihood opportunities offered by the Mission and an end to several socio-economic projects, but also a potential security vacuum in the most affected area.

While the MINUSMA proceeded to cede several of its bases to the Malian military, questions remain about whether the army will be able to address the security challenges posed in Central and Northern Mali. Two other actors deserve to be considered: the Wagner Group mercenaries and local self-defence militias. Wagner’s presence in Mali was strongly marked by an increase in abuses of civilian populations, while it still lacks tangible results in terms of the fight against insecurity. On the other hand, the presence of ethnic and local militias, such as Dan Na Ambassagou, that have previously been involved in ethnically motivated abuses. Both Wagner and militias raise questions on the security situation of civilians, including further massacres and displacements.

Another key consideration relates to the Peace Agreement, in vigour since 2015, which allowed for relative peace between Northern armed groups and the government. While the military government has in the past years been at odds with ex-rebels, the withdrawal of MINUSMA seems to represent a “deliberate fatal blow to the Peace Agreement”. The renewed opposition was particularly seen at the moment of MINUSMA’s retrocession of the Ber base in August 2023, which led to the confrontation between the Coordination of Azawad Movements and the joint army-Wagner forces. Since then, Mali witnessed an escalation in violence between armed groups signatories to the Peace Agreement, reunited under the Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development (CSP-PSD), and government forces. After months of combat, the Malian army was able to reconquer the city of Anefis in the rebel region of Kidal, which had escaped the government’s control for over 10 years.

More broadly, the end of MINUSMA can be a turning point for UN interventions in the Sahel region. The perpetuation of Wagner in Mali, and the newly established Alliance of Sahelian States (ASS), a defence pact created in September 2023 by the military juntas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, is likely to change the security dynamics in the Sahel. Particularly, both partnerships operate with strong opposition to “traditional” Western interventions, and defend a sovereignist discourse in the region. While MINUSMA represented the re-engagement of European countries in peacekeeping, their experience in Mali, particularly after the two coups, had a sour taste. In that regard, Mali also challenged the neutrality of the UN after the military government took power, confronting MINUSMA not only with a dangerous security situation but also with political challenges that eventually led to the end of the mission. Furthermore, as tensions between the West and Russia persist, Wagner’s offer to countries in conflict can be seen as a new, appealing second option, where international human rights and respect for populations are rarely applied. 

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