On March 23, while members of the United Nations Security Council were on an official visit to Mali, more than 160 civilians were killed in the village of Ogossagou in the central region in one of the deadliest massacres in the country’s recent history. The attack targeted the Fulani community, and victims, including about 50 children, were either shot or burned in their houses.
The gravity of this “horrific attack” was underscored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, who described “apocalyptic scenes.” It also made clear that in the context of Mali’s deteriorating security situation, more needs to be done to protect civilians. Media reports have warned that the conflict may be turning into ethnic cleansing. The Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide said there is a “high risk of further escalation of the situation in which atrocity crimes could be committed,” a point emphasized by the UN’s Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali who urged that intercommunal violence be addressed to avert the “risk of crimes against humanity.”
Protection of civilians (POC) in central Mali was not a major topic on the Security Council visit’s agenda, which focused on the implementation of the peace process in the north of the country. The brutality of the attack, however, reportedly shocked the ambassadors on the ground, and has prompted questions about the relevance of the current configuration of UN peacekeeping efforts in Mali, and the need to better prioritize protection of civilians in MINUSMA’s mandate.
Security Approaches Thus Far
Mali is high on the international peace and security agenda, with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) pursuing peacekeeping efforts alongside the French counterterrorism Operation Barkhane, and the G5 Sahel Joint Force operating on the border areas of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania to fight against terrorism, organized crime, and human trafficking.
However, most efforts have focused on the fight against violent extremism and the implementation of the Algiers peace agreement that settled the conflict in Northern Mali between the government, the Coordination of Azawad Movements calling for a political entity in northern Mali, and the Platform of armed groups defending the unity of the country. While international actors, through different mandates, pursue shared goals regarding the stabilization of Mali and the region and the implementation of the peace process, they have all tended to overlook the protection needs in central Mali, where intercommunal tensions have been aggravated by terrorism and counterterrorism dynamics.
Many incidents had forewarned the risk of mass atrocities in central Mali. Some UN entities, non-governmental organizations, and think tanks have reported the rise of violent incidents between Fulani and other communities, the interlinkages between terrorism and social grievances, and the destabilizing effects of the use of ethnically-based militias in the fight against terrorism. For more than two years, they have shared concerns about some communities or government officials conflating the Fulani community with “terrorists,” and the multiplication of acts of retribution targeting Fulani civilians. Since 2016, more intercommunal incidents and killings have been reported each year, fueled by cycles of retaliation between Fulani, Dogon, and Bambara communities. Many commentators had warned that central Mali was on an alarming path of growing violence and hatred, at the edge of a breaking point.
In light of these concerning developments, the Malian government established a plan for the central region called the PSIRC (Plan de sécurisation intégrée des régions du Centre) two years ago, and deployed additional troops to the area during the electoral period in 2018. The Security Council encouraged the UN peacekeeping operation to rebalance its presence in the central region in its most recent resolution on Mali. The new Force Commander of MINUSMA created a military sector in the central region and conducted operations in the area, including a POC campaign combining military, police, and civilian components to encourage reconciliation between Dogon and Fulani communities. However, many of these initiatives were implemented too timidly, as the Malian government and international stakeholders continued prioritizing support to counterterrorism efforts and the peace process in the north, rather than POC in the center.
The Limited Role of MINUSMA in the Protection of Civilians
As described in a recent International Peace Institute report on Mali, MINUSMA was not designed with POC as a key priority and was originally mandated to focus on the peace process in Northern Mali. At the time of the mission’s initial deployment, threats to local populations were indeed limited and POC did not require much attention. Over the years, MINUSMA also had to increasingly worry about its own protection in a uniquely hostile environment, where its personnel come under regular direct attack from terrorist groups, making it the deadliest peacekeeping operation for the UN. This limited the mission’s ability to operate among communities without putting them at greater risk.
The Malian government has also long resisted an expansion of MINUSMA’s activities in the central region, arguing that it was in control of the situation. One of the arguments has been that the violence in the center of the country is an epiphenomenon due to “ancient” clashes between herders and farmers that always existed, and thus does not constitute a threat to international peace and security. In this view, the rise of violence, being exacerbated by terrorism, will simply be curbed by defeating terrorists.
These different factors have led MINUSMA to build itself very differently than the UN multidimensional operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Darfur, which are designed entirely around POC. While mandated to protect civilians, MINUSMA has yet to prioritize POC in its internal structures, decision-making processes, and activities.
This lack of prioritization is mainly attributable to Security Council Resolution 2423, which the Secretariat and the mission dutifully execute. Despite the concerning spiral of violence affecting civilians in the central region, the language of the resolution relegates POC to a secondary issue. Unlike MONUSCO in DRC and UNAMID in Darfur, POC is not defined as a “strategic priority” for the mission. Rather the mandate insists in establishing that the only strategic priority is supporting the implementation of the peace agreement. POC only appears in the list of “priority tasks”—but only as the fourth in order of priority.
This is quite unique to MINUSMA, as resolutions mandating other UN multidimensional stabilization missions to protect civilians usually establish POC as the first priority. Even when the Security Council encouraged MINUSMA to consider the deterioration of the security situation and to optimize its presence in the central region, its resolution said to do so “without impeding its ability to pursue the strategic priority in the North.”
The Need for Significant Change in the Security Council Resolution
Contentious negotiations are anticipated in the lead up to the adoption of the next Security Council’s resolution in June, which is expected to adapt the mandate and configuration of the mission. In a context of general budget cuts, additional resources are unlikely to be provided to MINUSMA. Member states are also keen to sustain efforts for the implementation of the peace agreement in the north, which will remain a strategic priority.
However, the massacre in Ogossagou has prompted condemnations from the UN and member states, as demonstrated in the recent consultations on Mali on March 29. On April 3, the President of the Security Council issued a statement requesting that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres provide options for a “potential significant adaptation of MINUSMA” that “should factor the dire security situation, including in Central Mali […] and evaluate the current prioritization of MINUSMA’s objectives.” A series of pre-conditions frame the formulation of these options, which should not jeopardize the role of the mission in supporting the implementation of the peace agreement and its capacity to interact with other security presences in the region.
Nonetheless, there is now an opportunity to make innovative and bold suggestions to prioritize POC in MINUSMA’s mandate. Both the Secretariat and the Council should demonstrate their recognition of the gravity of the situation and tackle the protection crisis in central Mali. It is time to prove that the focus on “prevention” promoted by the secretary-general is a concrete rationale for action, not only a conceptual agenda.
MINUSMA should be given two strategic priorities: POC and the peace process. POC should also be moved higher up in the list of priority tasks. Establishing POC as a non-equivocal strategic priority is necessary to influence mindsets inside the mission, change the institutional culture of MINUSMA, and push the leadership to mainstream POC in its decision-making.
The Geopolitical Grounds for Prioritizing POC
Regardless of the actual inclusion of POC as a strategic priority for MINUSMA in the resolution, the UN mission will ultimately be judged upon whether it protects civilians in Mali. The mere presence of peacekeepers creates an expectation of protection in itself, and the civil society and media will see MINUSMA as a failure if it doesn’t act to prevent mass atrocities in central Mali, irrespective of the language adopted in the resolution. Recent demonstrations in Bamako and Paris have already shown the discontent of the youth and diaspora who are questioning the relevance of MINUSMA. An uncontrolled spiral of violence in central Mali will inevitably reflect badly on MINUSMA, Operation Barkhane, and the G5 Sahel. In this context, the Security Council should equip MINUSMA with the right mandate and support to do its utmost to protect civilians.
In addition, POC in the center and political efforts to support the implementation of the peace agreement in the north are not exclusive or contradictory endeavors, but are mutually reinforcing and equally necessary in the pursuit of the stabilization of the country. There will be no viable peace process in Mali if its central region becomes an arena of mass atrocities and ethnic cleansing. central Mali is the locus of agricultural production for the country at the crossroads of communities, connecting the north and south. It is consequently a decisive theater for overall stabilization and territorial integrity of country, arguably more than the north.
The lack of consideration for social grievances and the rise of intercommunal violence also fuels violent extremism, while the activities of terrorist groups and counterterrorism forces tend to aggravate tensions between communities. Addressing protection needs in the center of the country is therefore an essential piece of regional efforts to counter terrorism, and a more active role of MINUSMA in this regard would benefit Operation Barkhane—which recently had to establish a base in central Mali—and the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The situation in central Mali also has tremendous consequences in the entire Sahel region. Stemming inter-communal violence and its manipulation by violent extremist group there is an essential piece to preventing further instability in Burkina Faso for example, where a major crisis is looming.
What Can MINUSMA Actually Do to Protect Civilians?
While the Malian government is the first responsible actor for POC, MINUSMA should not be limited in its operations and activities when and where it can save lives if the national government is not able or willing to do so. Although the UN should support the Malians in protecting civilians, the Council cannot afford to restrain the mission and put peacekeepers in a position of forced passivity in the absence of a government response or, in some instances, if Malian forces themselves threaten civilians, as they did in Boulikessi last year.
A clearer prioritization of POC in the resolution would empower MINUSMA and enable it to strategically plan for POC-focused military interventions to deter and stop violence. It would also allow the civilian component to expand its outreach for human rights work, mediation and community reconciliation, disarmament, and capacity-building for the state to address social grievances.
With POC as an official strategic priority, the mission will also be able to firmly integrate POC in its political strategy and its good offices at the leadership level, which is arguably the most critical contribution MINUSMA can make to protecting civilians. MINUSMA should becoming a robust and bold voice on POC in dialogue with the Malian government at a strategic level, including by pushing the government to ensure POC, deploy state capacities to central regions as planned in the PSIRC, and by sensitizing officials about risks associated with counterterrorism efforts.
POC can be pursued even if MINUSMA is not provided additional means. Of course, the UN cannot deploy peacekeepers in every village of Mali and should set up effective strategic communication to manage expectations. However, MINUSMA should demonstrate it is striving to do its utmost for POC at a strategic and tactical level. To carry out this shift, its personnel need to be confident that they have the trust, encouragement, and support of the Security Council to prioritize and proactively address the risk of atrocities in the country.
Namie Di Razza is a Senior Fellow with the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).