One Crisis, Multiple Norms: Strengthening Human Protection in Mali and the Sahel

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.

Winston explains that the core of a norm is a tripartite structure consisting of a “problem, a value, and a behavior.” Using this approach, we showed that while addressing different “problems” and utilizing different “behaviors,” PoC, RtoP, and counterterrorism to some extent all privilege the “value” of human protection. As a result, we propose that these three norms can form part of a broader human protection norm cluster.

This human protection norm cluster has important policy implications in showing the links and overlaps between these parallel norms but, equally, the disparities in their relative weight and significance, and the tensions between their different behaviors on the ground. For instance, the PoC behavior of physical protection through peacekeeping operations contrasts with the behavior of counterterrorism operations in eliminating a threat, which may in turn involve direct armed combat and thus potential civilian casualties.

Lantis and Wunderlich’s definition of a norm cluster illustrates how norms, though distinct and with specific obligations, are often bundled together. We do not downplay the tense relationship between the norms. However, it is significant that PoC, RtoP, and counterterrorism have the underlying value of human protection, and yet each involves fundamentally different behaviors in response to distinct problems that may arise in conflict situations.

The Human Protection Norm Cluster in Practice

To apply and evaluate the significance of this human protection norm cluster in Mali, we first evidenced the role of PoC, RtoP, and counterterrorism in shaping the international responses to the crisis, beginning with the establishment of MINUSMA’s mandate in April 2013. Identifying the PoC norm in Mali is straightforward, considering MINUSMA’s explicit PoC mandate that began with UNSC Resolution 2100 (2013). MINUSMA encompasses several values and behaviors of the PoC norm, including the provision of physical protection, the pursuit of justice for violations of international law, efforts to establish a protective environment for civilians, and advocating for PoC through dialogue.

Identifying the role of the RtoP in Mali is more challenging because, unlike PoC, it is not an explicit part of MINUSMA’s mandate. In terms of RtoP’s four crimes—genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing—(the problem), in 2012 the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned armed groups for “committing serious human rights violations and possibly war crimes,” suggesting that the violence in Mali might equate to atrocity crimes. The 2020 International Commission of Inquiry on Mali later confirmed that some of the abuses and violations constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity. We found common references across different versions of MINUSMA’s Security Council mandate to the domestic responsibility of the government of Mali to protect its population from atrocity crimes as well as the international community’s responsibility to assist them (behavior). Indeed, much of MINUSMA’s support to the Malian authorities and security forces can be understood as helping them realize their primary responsibility to protect their own populations. Yet despite apparently logical grounds to do so, we found no clear attempts by member states to explicitly invoke the RtoP in official UN documents and Security Council resolutions on MINUSMA’s role in Mali, which shows a peripheral role for the RtoP.

As for counterterrorism, the prevalence of non-state armed terrorist groups in Mali shows several problems, values, and behaviors related to the counterterrorism norm. International actors such as France and Russia, as well as neighboring countries comprising the G5-Sahel Joint Force, have emphasized the threat posed by terrorist groups (the problem), the need to uphold the sovereign integrity of the government (the value), and the deployment of a constellation of interventions including MINUSMA and the counterterrorism forces of Operational Barkhane, Taskforce Takuba, the G5-Sahel Joint Force and most recently the Wagner Group (behavior). The UNSC and Secretariat are clear that MINUSMA is not a counterterrorism force, but its mandate is vague on this relationship, with MINUSMA directed “to anticipate, deter and counter threats, including asymmetric threats, and to take robust and active steps to protect civilians” and engage in “direct operations pursuant only to serious and credible threats.” What constitutes an asymmetric threat is ambiguous, and it is plausible to argue that terrorist attacks on peacekeepers and civilians constitute both asymmetric attacks and serious and credible threats to MINUSMA and the implementation of its PoC mandate.

Policy Implications

From a policymaking perspective, this research has a number of implications. First, it evidences that it is unhelpful to view PoC, RtoP, and counterterrorism as three individual norms because of the links, areas of overlap, and feedback between them. This is true irrespective of what the mandate says.

Second, it illustrates that even though the three norms have been invoked alongside one another, they have not carried equal weight and influence on the international response to the crisis in Mali. In theory, PoC is core to MINUSMA, while counterterrorism is peripheral. Yet, in practice, the prevalence of the latter in the constellation of actors has been significant. Indeed, it is widely understood that, at least for the first few years of the mission, the PoC norm was little more than a fig leaf for stabilization and counterterrorism objectives of key Council members. In comparison to the PoC and counterterrorism, the peripheral role of the RtoP in Mali raises questions about the added value and tangible influence of the norm in shaping efforts to avert mass atrocities on the ground. This is important for continued efforts to translate its rhetoric into action, especially given the UN Secretary-General’s focus on early warning and prevention in the implementation of RtoP.

Third, this research shows that while norms may be invoked alongside each other, they are not necessarily complementary and mutually reinforcing. More than normative crowding out, in Mali the influence of counterterrorism has actually proven detrimental for MINUSMA’s pursuit of PoC. The ambiguity in MINUSMA’s mandate and relationship with the host government’s security forces and parallel counterterrorism forces has contributed to the perception, especially among terrorist groups, of MINUSMA as a de facto party to the conflict. MINUSMA’s support to host state security forces who have committed human rights violations in the process of conducting counterterrorism operations has also generated significant anti-UN sentiment among the local populations they are meant to protect. These questions over the mission’s impartiality have all impacted negatively on mission credibility, legitimacy, and ultimately effectiveness when it comes to reducing threats to civilians.

What Next for International Intervention in Mali and the Sahel?

It may be that, as Nina Wilén and Paul Williams have argued, there are “no obvious good options.” However, MINUSMA is expected to continue cooperating closely with parallel forces in a broader constellation with multiple objectives and interests in play. In this case, more thought needs to be given to how counterterrorism can have a detrimental impact on PoC and how to mitigate the risks when PoC is instrumentalized in order to enable action on counterterrorism. Paying closer attention to the common value of human protection could also allow for gender, including masculinities, to be considered more actively in determining protection needs, no matter the response.

One option is to simplify MINUSMA. An approach that elevates PoC and human rights monitoring while stripping back other mandated tasks supporting the host state would live up to the “human protection” value and normative imperative and offer a way of distinguishing more clearly between protecting civilians from atrocities and human rights violations and providing support to the transitional Malian authorities and their proxies. However, the perennial practical difficulties of implementing PoC mandates in such a challenging security environment—exacerbated by the withdrawal of French capabilities—would continue to beset MINUSMA. Already fraught relations with the military junta would be further strained. None of this would focus on lasting solutions.

Another option is to transform MINUSMA and outsource its security functions. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said recently that the situation in Mali and the Sahel demands a more robust approach to enforcing peace and tackling violent extremism that should be led by the African Union. Well aware that exclusively military approaches will not be sufficient to achieve sustainable peace, the UNSC could deploy a lighter footprint special political mission (SPM) focusing more attention and country team expertise on coordinating different stakeholders (including the international financial institutions and development partners) and facilitating an inclusive political process building on the recent national dialogue. It is worth noting here that a 2018 independent strategic review had initially pointed to the possibility of reducing the UN’s field presence to a special political mission, but this recommendation was removed by the UN Secretariat before it was presented to the UNSC. While an SPM could enhance coordination and potentially foster more sustainable results, this approach would leave civilians more exposed to abuses by different armed actors and could further entrench a climate of impunity.

Ultimately, the UNSC does not have the luxury of choosing between normative imperatives associated with preventing atrocities, protecting civilians in conflict, and countering terrorism. Nor can it simply withdraw, as France did. The fact that as many as 97 percent of terrorist attacks take place in conflict zones suggests that this is a predicament set to continue in Mali, the Sahel, and elsewhere.

With this in mind, if the UN is to develop a credible Agenda for Protection going forward, it will need to build in safeguards to avoid falling into the normative dissonance trap that has characterized efforts to protect civilians caught up in conflict and affected by violent extremism in Mali and the Sahel over the past decade.

Adrian Gallagher is Professor of Global Security and Mass Atrocity Prevention in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds and Co-Director of the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He tweets at @Dr_A_Gallagher.

Charles T. Hunt is Associate Professor of Global Security in the Social and Global Studies Centre at RMIT University in Melbourne and Senior Fellow (non-resident) with the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research in New York. He tweets at @CharlieKwame.

Blake Lawrinson is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds.