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The UN Security Council and the Future of MINUSMA

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On Friday 16th June, Mali’s Foreign Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, told the UN Security Council, that its 13,000-strong stabilization mission (MINUSMA) should leave without delay. MINUSMA has tried to stabilize Mali for a decade, but Diop’s demand comes after a long period of increasingly difficult relations between the country’s junta and the UN.


The UN Security Council and the Future of MINUSMA

On Friday 16th June, Mali’s Foreign Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, told the UN Security Council, that its 13,000-strong stabilization mission (MINUSMA) should leave without delay. MINUSMA has tried to stabilize Mali for a decade, but Diop’s demand comes after a long period of increasingly difficult relations between the country’s junta and the UN. The junta has restricted access, curtailed mobility, and suspended rotations of UN peacekeepers making it even more difficult for the mission to fulfill its complex mandate, often in hostile terrain. It seems clear that MINUSMA must react, but how the UN Security Council decides to respond to the junta’s ultimatum will have broader and longer-term implications than the future of MINUSMA: the UN Security Council’s power and credibility are at stake and so are the future conditions for UN peacekeeping.

Over the past decade, MINUSMA has attracted attention from policy makers and academics for several reasons. These include its deployment into a war-like environment with a much criticized robust mandate and heavy emphasis on force protection, neither of which stopped MINUSMA becoming the UN’s most dangerous current operation. MINUSMA also made headlines for a short-lived “European return to UN peacekeeping,” temporarily becoming the only UN operation in Africa with over 1,000 European troops. The mission has been criticized for being too offensive and thus breaching the UN’s basic peacekeeping principles, and for not using enough force, thereby failing to fulfill its mandate to protect civilians. There is however no doubt that MINUSMA has managed to reduce violence against civilians during the past decade, although to varying degrees over different periods. Moreover, it often goes unreported that it is the government of Mali which has the primary responsibility to protect civilians on its territory.

MIMUSMA also made headlines because it has had to work with not one, but two military juntas after coups in August 2020 and May 2021. The latest Malian junta in particular imposed many constraints on the mission. It has also entered into a vicious partnership with the Russian Wagner Group. These developments have reduced MINUSMA’s political and military leverage considerably. The current demand to leave comes only a few weeks after the UN released its much-awaited report on the Moura massacre of March 2022, which concluded that Malian armed forces killed over 500 people in collaboration with Wagner Group. The report was released more than a year after the massacre, in part due to the Malian government refusing access for UN observers, and in part due to political sensitivities and the consequences the report would have for the UN’s relations with the junta. The inclusion of the report in the new draft Security Council resolution on MINUSMA was heavily decried by the junta, making it possible that its latest demand was a reaction and negotiating tactic to ensure a revised resolution. Yet, UN troop contributing states have already reacted to Mali’s demand, notably Burkina Faso’s transitional authorities who have encouraged Mali’s ‘courageous decision’ and asked to withdraw their contingent from MINUSMA.

Either way, the junta’s demand puts the UN Security Council in a difficult position, in part because MINUSMA’s mandate runs out on 30 June. Hence, another UN Security Council resolution is required to further extend the mission. One option would be for the Council to renew MINUSMA’s mandate and declare that the junta does not represent Mali’s de jure authorities. This would undoubtedly worsen political relations between the junta and MINUSMA, perhaps triggering violent confrontation.

Alternatively, the Council could withdraw the mission, or not renew its mandate after 30 June. This would create a precedent whereby a junta—emboldened by Russia’s political and military support—can dictate the conditions for UN peacekeeping.

A third scenario could involve Russia vetoing a mandate renewal resolution tabled by other members of the Council. A similar situation occurred in 2009, when the Russian Federation vetoed the draft resolution to extend the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). The UNOMIG mandate expired only six hours after the vote without any separate resolution to terminate and liquidate the mission. If something similar occurred in relation to Mali, it would at least allow other Security Council members to claim that MINUSMA’s departure was the result of Council internal divisions rather than the Council’s weakness in the face of the junta’s demand. It might also do less damage to the Council over the longer-term because it would not set any new legal precedents.

None of these three options is good for the Security Council, or Mali’s civilians. But they would each generate different types of consequences. Maintaining MINUSMA without consent of the de facto host government would require the Security Council to declare that the current transitional government does not represent the country’s de jure authorities, given it assumed power through two military coups. This would be similar to events in December 2010 when the Council renewed the mandate of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), even after the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, called for the mission to leave. In that case, the Security Council was divided between the “legalists,” the P3 and Germany who wanted to stick to the letter of previous Council resolutions, and the “sovereignists” (China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa), who were uncomfortable with what they saw as interference in Ivorian internal affairs. In Côte d’Ivoire, however, the presidential election results allowed the UN to disregard Gbagbo’s request and recognize his opponent, Alassane Outtara, as the victor, and hence the country’s legitimate president.

In Mali, the Security Council has been careful to emphasize the return to constitutional order as a priority, as well as the transitional nature of the current government. This makes it theoretically possible for the Council to disregard the junta’s demand by claiming it is not the de jure authority representing the population. However, contrary to the situation in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010, Mali has no other legally elected authority for the Security Council to turn to in order to grant host state consent for a renewal of MINUSMA’s mandate. Keeping MINUSMA deployed against the will of the incumbent government would also make it even more difficult to try and revive the Algiers peace agreement, a task which was already exceedingly difficult. UN peacekeepers would also face a higher risk of being targeted by both a range of non-state armed actors and also government forces.

If the Security Council decides to withdraw MINUSMA because of the junta’s demand, it will set a dangerous precedent for future peacekeeping, encouraging juntas to dictate if, when, and how UN operations should withdraw. This would be especially worrying in the current security climate in Mali, where the population has increasingly been subject to violence from both state armed forces partnering with Wagner Group, and from revived jihadist movements after Operation Barkhane completed its withdrawal in August 2022. There is also an increased risk of a resumption of hostilities between Northern armed groups and Malian forces, which would create a situation similar to 2012. MINUSMA’s exit will thus almost certainly result in more attacks against civilians and further embolden jihadist organizations.

This wouldn’t be the first time a UN peace operation was expelled because a host government withdrew their consent. Other 21st century cases include Eritrea rejecting the continuation of UNMEE and Sudan rejecting an extension of UNMIS. And in 2006, the UN Operation in Burundi (ONUB), was asked to leave by the then newly elected government. A UN officer from the mission said that the request had come as a shock: the Burundian government “almost said that you’ve outlasted our welcome. It’s fine you can go now…it came as a shock.” Yet, to save face and to maintain a smaller peacebuilding and monitoring presence in the country, the UN managed to negotiate a phased withdrawal with the host government and establish the UN Integrated Office in Burundi (BINUB). In sum, in Burundi, the UN went from a 5,000 strong multidimensional mission to a civilian presence with less than 500 staff. This type of phased withdrawal with a small political office might also be possible in Mali, and was one of the three options proposed in the UN’s review of MINUSMA in January 2023. Yet, it would significantly reduce the UN’s ability to protect civilians and deter violence.

The Malian government’s ultimatum illustrates some important current trends affecting UN peacekeeping. It highlights divisions in the Security Council, a more assertive attitude among several host governments and the sometimes-difficult relationships between UN peacekeepers, regional coalitions, and private actors. If MINUSMA is withdrawn or replaced, it will also add to the recent trend of closing larger UN multidimensional missions in favor of deploying smaller political missions. Whatever option the Security Council decides to take regarding MINUSMA, it is likely to have far-reaching consequences for UN peacekeeping operations more generally.



(Photo credit:  Wikimedia Commons)