MINUSMA and Protection of Civilians: Implications for Future Peacekeeping Missions

An integrated team serving with MINUSMA, escorted by peacekeepers from the Bangladeshi contingent, interview civilians to investigate armed attacks in the Bankass Cercle area, central Mali, February 21, 2019. (MINUSMA Flickr/Marco Dormino)

The trajectory of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) over the last decade offers important considerations for the future of peacekeeping when it comes to the protection of civilians. The UN Security Council’s decision in June to end MINUSMA followed a request from the Malian Foreign Minister two weeks prior withdrawing consent for the mission. It is unclear how the mission will manage its abrupt exit while still attempting to provide some form of limited protection to the civilian population for only three months. The Malian authorities will face greater challenges extending their authority across the country to replace MINUSMA’s efforts to protect civilians, especially after the withdrawal of key air enablers and mission logistical support. The implications of this for civilians given the insecurity across the country are likely to be dire without additional international or regional assistance.

When the Council authorized the deployment of MINUSMA in April 2013, it mandated the mission to “protect, without prejudice to the responsibility of the transnational authorities of Mali, civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within its capacities and areas of deployment.” In the intervening years, the mission’s protection of civilians (POC) mandate has evolved to reflect the changing political and security situation, with early mandates linking POC to stabilization tasks and more recent mandates including POC as a second strategic priority to “facilitate implementation of a comprehensive politically-led Malian strategy to protect civilians.” By June 2022, the mandate included directions for MINUSMA to protect civilians through a number of approaches: support the Malian authorities to stabilize key population centers; develop enhanced early warning measures; prevent the return of armed groups through direct operations; strengthen community engagement; and provide specific protection for women and children.

MINUSMA deployed at a time when the UN Secretariat and member states had already become well-sensitized to the role of peacekeeping missions in POC. After nearly 15 years of POC mandates, by 2013, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations finally had a small, dedicated team at headquarters to drive the development of guidance and policies. Deploying troop- and police-contributing countries (T/PCCs) had access to training materials, and peacekeeping mission leadership was supported in the development of mission-specific strategies and the expertise of new protection of civilians advisers. Because of the presence of several NATO countries with advanced logistics and intelligence capabilities, MINUSMA was able to capitalize on these tools and innovate approaches to intelligence, situational awareness, the use of technology, and strategic planning in support of POC.

However, the asymmetric threat environment meant MINUSMA faced several unmatched challenges, some of which stemmed from working alongside different parallel counterterrorism operations. The mission also faced an expanding range of obstructions to its operations after two military coups in 2020 and 2021 increased tensions with the ruling authorities. Views between the Malian authorities and the Security Council diverged on the role of the mission, particularly when it came to peace enforcement and human rights monitoring, as illustrated in Mali’s response to the UN secretary general’s internal review. These developments had a significant impact on the mission’s effectiveness on POC and offer some important considerations for future peace operations.

Inadequate Force Protection = Limited POC Success

Peacekeeping missions will have limited success implementing their mandates to protect civilians without adequate and appropriate force protection for the threat environment they are operating in. MINUSMA remains the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission to date, with 174 peacekeepers killed in hostile acts during the last decade. Many of those peacekeepers died because of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), largely during road convoys.

MINUSMA was overstretched geographically, with over 13,000 troops operating in a country more than three times the size of Germany. Bases could take up to four weeks to reach by road. Egypt suspended its operations undertaking road convoys in response to the deaths of seven of its personnel in 2022, requiring the mission to rely heavily on air assets to move people and personnel. Furthermore, the Malian authorities were increasingly obstructing the use of air assets in the mission, including uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) which were being used for situational awareness and force protection.

The force protection capabilities of TCCs varied. Some European and NATO contributors—including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, and the UK—deployed with advanced capabilities such as mine-resistant vehicles and air assets with “sophisticated censors and weapons systems”  in addition to being trained and experienced in asymmetric threat environments from operating in Afghanistan. This wasn’t necessarily the case for several troop contributors from Africa—many of whom initially re-hatted from AFISMA—who were deploying with “ill-suited” equipment and force protection measures. With the departure of several Western contributors and the French-led counterterrorism force Operation Barkhane, the mission lost logistics and air support, exposing MINUMA to even greater risks.

The combination of the deteriorating threat environment and the limited capabilities of the mission meant that up to 80 percent of the force’s operational capacity was devoted to protecting personnel and sustainment, rather than implementing the mission’s mandate to protect civilians. The civilian component was heavily reliant on the military to move about the country and support efforts focused on local conflict resolution, early warning of threats, human rights engagement, and peacebuilding activities. Without mobility or effective force protection, these activities were curtailed and limited in reach, hampering efforts to deliver on the mission’s POC mandate.

Operating Alongside Parallel Forces Conducting Counterterrorism Operations

Efforts by MINUSMA to protect civilians were enabled but also compromised by the activities of parallel counterterrorism operations which operated alongside the mission. These included Barkhane, the G5 Sahel Force, and the European Union training missions. All these missions had different aims, objectives, funding mechanisms, and levels of oversight by the Security Council, with no clear strategic vision as to how they contributed to efforts to protect civilians in Mali.

The UN Secretariat had reservations about deploying a UN peacekeeping mission to Mali in early 2013. It wasn’t the right tool, but it recognized the financial and political realities. In that context, a UN peacekeeping mission would need to operate alongside a parallel force that would “conduct major combat and counter-terrorism operations.” However, any blurring of lines between the two missions would threaten the safety and security of mission personnel and hamper efforts to protect civilians. And the lines did become blurred. The Strategic Review undertaken in 2018 found that “the proximity of MINUSMA, and its support role and cooperation with security actors, including counter-terrorism actors, had contributed to the perception that the Mission was engaging in counter-terrorism actions.”

The challenges of attempting to deliver a POC mandate in a setting marked by violent extremism and terrorism were numerous. Efforts to address threats from terrorist groups risked high levels of civilian casualties, prompting the Council to incorporate language on civilian harm mitigation as part of MINUSMA’s approach to protecting civilians to minimize risks. Nonetheless, MINUSMA had limited control over managing any risks in perceptions when civilians were harmed by robust counterterrorism operations undertaken by other parallel actors. For some Malians, there was no distinction between the different international security actors, creating security risks for MINUSMA and undermining its ability to effectively implement its POC mandate.

Mismatched Expectations

Another lesson from MINUSMA’s experience with POC is that a lack of congruence in expectations between the host authorities and the peacekeeping mission in relation to POC and human rights mandates will set missions up to fail. The emergence of multidimensional stabilization peacekeeping missions in the last decade has challenged the nature of UN peacekeeping, as mission leadership juggle working closely with the host authorities to build the capacity of the state on one hand, while also holding them to account for upholding human rights and good governance on the other. Furthermore, the longer a peacekeeping mission is deployed, the more likely that local grievances will emerge that criticize the lack of the mission’s perceived effectiveness. This provides the host authorities with scope to blame the mission for their political and security failings, instrumentalizing a peacekeeping mission as part of its political agenda. In Mali, this was compounded further by the spread of disinformation in mission settings, which was utilized to generate anti-mission sentiment.

In the Malian context, the transitional authorities made clear in the months preceding the mission drawdown that they did not want the mission engaged in supporting and promoting human rights.  They firmly disputed the findings from the investigation that took place into massacres in Moura in March 2022, claiming it had been an operation against terrorists. Efforts to engage with the Malian authorities over the mandate were not improved by the divisions on the Council, with Russia supportive of less human rights oversight in the country given the deployment of Wagner group. Had MINUSMA’s mandate been renewed, the Council would have had a challenging task to maintain its ground on protection of civilians and the promotion of human rights, though it would have been imperative that it did so.

A Future for POC in Peacekeeping?

Later this year, the UN Security Council is expected to come to a decision on the use of UN assessed funds to finance peace support operations deployed by the African Union (AU) and subregional configurations. There is some anticipation that more sustainable and predictable funding will enable the AU to respond to requests for peace support operations with a peace enforcement mandate—something that wasn’t possible in 2013. MINUSMA’s experience operating alongside parallel forces provides important considerations to strengthen modalities in support of protection of civilians, namely through the development of clearly articulated mandates and responsibilities based on comparative advantages, and effective accountability and compliance frameworks.

There have been significant strides made over the last two decades in developing an awareness and understanding among peacekeeping contributors that POC is integral to the work of peacekeeping where civilians are at risk of violence. However, there is a risk of backsliding. Geopolitical divisions and differing views on the role of POC in peacekeeping—particularly among the P5—risk undermining future consensus on the deployment of peacekeeping missions to protect civilians where required.

If there is one key lesson from MINUSMA’s withdrawal, it is that the Council, T/PCCs, and member states must make clear to host authorities that the protection of civilians—including monitoring and upholding human rights—is integral to peacekeeping, and that there are also limits to what peacekeeping can do. The Security Council and member states need to uphold their responsibilities and bring to bear the necessary resources to deliver on those mandates. And host governments need to uphold their commitment to enable peacekeeping missions to carry out their mandates without obstruction, rather than claiming they failed to achieve their objective.

Lisa Sharland is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Protecting Civilians and Human Security Program at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.

This article was edited on July 18th to change the number of peacekeepers killed to 174. This number had been incorrectly reported by Reuters as “more than 300.”