Peacekeepers with MINUSMA conduct an operation to protect civilians and their property in Gao, Mali, July 2017. (UN Photo/Harandane Dicko)

It’s been a decade since a Tuareg rebellion triggered a broad crisis in Mali and the Sahel region, one that has defied a peaceful resolution, despite significant international attention and resources. People fleeing violence by armed groups has reportedly increased almost 70 percent since early 2020. The recent massacre of hundreds of civilians in Moura by Malian state and Russian private security forces exemplifies how civilians are under threat from multiple assailant groups. The magnitude of the protection challenge for international interveners is underscored by the fact that, with 260 peacekeepers killed, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is the world’s “most dangerous peacekeeping mission.” In late May 2022, for example, peacekeepers suffered five attacks in one week alone.

As the UN Security Council (UNSC) prepares to renew MINUSMA’s mandate later this month, it’s worth examining why previous efforts to reduce the threat to civilians have been insufficient. In pursuit of this, we authors conducted research focused on the UN Security Council’s invocation of three distinct yet related norms—the protection of civilians (PoC), the responsibility to protect (RtoP), and counterterrorism. Our research illustrates that even though these three norms are often invoked alongside one another, they have not carried equal weight and influence on the international response to the crisis in Mali. Indeed, we found that the core norm of PoC has been impacted negatively by the peripheral norm of counterterrorism.

A Cluster of Human Protection Norms

The United Nations Security Council’s invocation of three norms in relation to the crisis in Mali (PoC, RtoP, and counterterrorism) raises two important questions: what are these norms, and how do they interact? To make sense of this, our research combines Carla Winston’s and Jeffrey Lantis and Carmen Wunderlich’s slightly different concepts of “norm clusters” to discuss the internal structure of the three norms, and then analyze the links and tensions between them. Read more