MINUSMA’s Termination and the Future of Protection in Mali

Civilian-military activities carried out by MINUSMA during Operation Frelena, July, 2017. (MINUSMA Flickr/Harandane Dicko)

Now that the United Nations (UN) Security Council has voted to end MINUSMA’s mandate and withdraw the mission within six months, civilians in Mali are at even greater risk of harm from violence. Despite its challenges, MINUSMA has played an important role in the protection of civilians (POC) in Mali. It provided physical protection to civilians through its static bases in large towns and, in more remote areas, temporary bases, along with patrols and convoys. People displaced by violent conflict in Mali have, at times, sought refuge near MINUSMA bases, and MINUSMA’s security presence has assisted in the delivery of humanitarian aid. The mission’s political engagement and dialogue with armed actors and communities helped to promote protection, defuse inter-community violence, and strengthen community mechanisms for conflict prevention. MINUSMA’s human rights monitoring, reporting, and capacity-building mandate helped promote and protect human rights in the country.

Still, efforts to protect civilians—not only by the UN, but any actor engaged in this work—have proven difficult. ACLED has recorded over 100 civilian fatalities per month on average this year. This comes after a decade of civilians being targeted for killing, wounding, torture, abduction, conflict-related sexual violence, and theft of property necessary to maintain livelihoods. The ongoing conflict has also forced civilians to flee their homes. Over 550,000 people are now either internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries—a slight decrease from the 580,000 reported in March, which was the highest number of displaced persons ever reported by the UN in Mali. Without the UN mission in place, such risks may now increase.

The amount of leverage that the UN Security Council and broader system have to influence the political and security situation in Mali is admittedly limited. Nevertheless, the UN should still seek options to fill the protection gap resulting from MINUSMA’s withdrawal. An overview of some of these options is laid out below.

Mitigating Risks to Civilians During Transition

The Security Council resolution terminating MINUSMA’s mandate and requesting its withdrawal does give the mission a limited mandate to protect civilians, based on precedent language from the withdrawal of MINURCAT from Chad in 2010. However, this language only authorizes the mission to respond to imminent threats to civilians, and within the UN’s immediate vicinity, during a drawdown period ending September 30, 2023. Even so, MINUSMA can still prioritize the protection of civilians in crafting and carrying out its transition out of Mali.

First, while the mission withdraws, it still has capabilities and systems in place to protect civilians where possible. The mission’s presence in and around its bases has, in some cases, served as a deterrent to threats to civilians. This effect has clearly not been infallible and will likely further degrade given the end of the MINUSMA mandate. Still, even after the drawdown period ends, MINUSMA’s remaining presence in its bases could dissuade some protection threats. Therefore, while the top concern for the transition plan will be mitigating risks to UN personnel and executing its withdrawal, its sequencing could also consider protection threats and hotspots.

Second, MINUSMA could work to prevent and address any instances of its own operations causing harm to civilians. While the mission is drawing down, risks to civilians will be elevated not just from other armed actors but potentially by the mission’s own activities, including the risk of insufficient coordination with local actors or instances of retaliation against civilians for past cooperation with the UN. Some of the mission’s tools developed for mandate implementation will be reoriented for withdrawal and can help mitigate these risks. These might include integrated analysis and planning, tracking of incidents related to retaliation, and strategic communications capabilities, which can help explain the mission’s transition plan and counter misinformation.

Third, MINUSMA’s transition plan could include specific language and options promoting the active participation of civil society, including representatives of women’s organizations, in the transition. Rapid planning processes often forgo wider consultation, but MINUSMA’s withdrawal will have an impact on a wide range of stakeholders and groups in Mali. The mission’s transition plan can, at least to some degree, encourage and support the government to engage with stakeholders at national and local levels across the country in developing the plan for assuming MINUSMA’s tasks and responding to its withdrawal. To the extent that the upcoming national elections and international support for the electoral process can provide an opening, it is critical to promote constructive engagement with civilians in northern and central Mali who are at greatest risk of increased protection threats during and after the peacekeeping transition.

Protection Actors in Mali Going Forward

As in all contexts, the Malian government has the primary responsibility to protect civilians, and it can take steps to improve. The previous Council resolution which expired June 30 asked the Malian authorities to “take expedited action to protect civilians throughout the country, and to prevent, minimize and address civilian harm that might result from operations undertaken by the Malian Defense and Security Forces (MDSF).” Given the high number of reported violations by the MDSF and its partners, and the severity of incidents such as the alleged massacre in Moura, Malian security forces need to develop mechanisms that mitigate harm to civilians from their operations, prevent international humanitarian law (IHL) violations against civilians, and ensure accountability for violations that do occur.

Beyond calling on the MDSF to improve internal mechanisms to protect civilians, Mali’s international partners should work with the government to find an agreeable framework for external monitoring and reporting on civilian harm, perhaps by an international or regional body like the African Union (AU). Credible actors within Mali that can monitor and address civilian harm—like civil society organizations and the National Human Rights Commission, as well as the judiciary—should be supported and strengthened. Mali’s partners, including regional organizations and donor countries, may look for political and economic avenues to incentivize such oversight arrangements. Outside the government, Malian civilians have mechanisms for protecting themselves. Community-based protection will remain an important set of tools for preventing and mitigating harm to civilians from conflict-related violence. Locally-led dialogue with armed actors has helped to reduce the threat to civilians even from violent extremist groups. Local conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and early warning mechanisms could be supported by both the Malian government and international partners.

Self-defense militias are another form of locally-led protection with a long history in Mali and which often enjoy support from the state. If MINUSMA’s withdrawal heightens insecurity in the country (and assuming MDSF and its partners cannot fill the security vacuum), these groups may proliferate as communities seek to protect themselves from numerous threats. However, these mechanisms can feed intercommunal fragmentation and violence, and can themselves pose a serious risk to civilians. Community-based self-defense militias have been implicated in numerous human rights abuses; in many reporting periods, MINUSMA recorded more abuses by these groups than any other armed actor in Mali. At the same time, militias are likely to persist, despite such risks. Thus, the government should be encouraged to promote civilian harm mitigation by militias, as well as its own forces, as a means to avoid exacerbating cycles of violence and instability.

In addition, there is a possibility, if remote, that Mali and the AU or another regional grouping could agree to deploy a peace support operation to support the government in counterinsurgency and counterterror efforts. If such a mission were to materialize, it would need to include robust mechanisms for respecting international humanitarian law and for tracking, preventing, minimizing, and addressing potential civilian harm. Even absent a peace support operation, political engagement by regional actors may play a larger role going forward, giving the AU an opportunity to focus on civilian protection in its dialogue with Mali.

Finally, Malian authorities have expressed a commitment to continue cooperating with the UN system despite the withdrawal of MINUSMA. The UN agencies, funds, and programs on the ground in Mali will play a role in supporting the protection of civilians, even if it is not an explicit mandate. Their activities will help address the root causes of conflict by meeting humanitarian needs and facilitating service provision. Even without a UN special representative for Mali, through its Resident Coordinator and the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), the UN will continue to play a political role in the country and can help promote civilian protection.

The UN’s Agenda for Protection, announced in 2020 but not expected to be launched until later in 2023, emphasizes the importance of finding system-wide coherence and addressing gaps on protection, given varying mandates and capabilities. Security Council resolution 2594 from 2021 highlights a number of ways the UN can continue to contribute to the protection of civilians after a peacekeeping transition, including by supporting early warning systems, local conflict prevention mechanisms, and trust-building between the government and local communities. While recognizing limitations in capacities and the difficulty of the operating environment, the UN country team’s ability to support such tools will need to be bolstered, where the relevant actors can allocate or generate the resources to do so.

While the UN system’s remaining presence in the country will need to support the national authorities, it will also need to continue applying the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP). In that regard, conducting the needed assessments of security forces’ human rights records, risks, and mitigating measures takes specialized expertise. The UN could plan to transfer the necessary resources and capacities from MINUSMA to the remaining UN presence to effectively apply HRDDP.

Unfortunately, the Malian government’s decision to withdraw host state consent and request MINUSMA’s immediate withdrawal will almost certainly lead to increased civilian harm, in addition to jeopardizing the government’s own operations and troops. A peacekeeping transition that mitigates the risks to civilians to the greatest extent possible is the UN’s best chance to continue implementing the principles of the Charter in a difficult situation. Fortunately, the UN has experience from previous transitions that demonstrates the importance of civil society inclusion, prioritizing POC, and building the capacity of other actors to continue to protect civilians after MINUSMA leaves Mali.

Josh Jorgensen is Peacekeeping Advisor with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).