Diplomats and United Nations (UN) Secretariat officials were caught off guard when, at the end of the June 16 Security Council meeting, the Malian authorities requested that the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) leave their country “without delay.” This initiated a rapid sequence of events that culminated on June 30 when the Security Council passed resolution 2690, bringing an end to MINUSMA and establishing a timeframe for its exit. The Security Council authorized MINUSMA, acting within its means and capabilities in its immediate vicinity, to respond to immediate threats of violence to civilians and contribute to the safe civilian-led delivery of humanitarian assistance through September 30, 2023. The cessation of operations, transfer of tasks, and withdrawal of personnel is to be completed by December 31 2023, after which liquidation will proceed in earnest from January 1 2024, though the Security Council did not specify a timetable for the completion of these activities.
This turn of events also disrupted the MINUSMA budget process in the Fifth Committee, which was ongoing at the time of the Security Council deliberations. Because the planning assumptions for the budget originally submitted by the Secretary-General had been entirely overtaken by events, the General Assembly adopted resolution 77/312 providing MINUSMA with $590 million in interim funding—i.e., commitment authority with assessment—for the six-month period from 1 July through 31 December 2023. A revised budget for the full financial period will now be developed for consideration by the General Assembly in the Fall.
The Liquidation Process
Mission closure and liquidation plans are usually developed when the Security Council signals its intention to conclude the mandate or begins to progressively reduce the size or scope of a mission. Once the mission’s end date becomes clear, the closure and liquidation plans are finalized and the mission focuses on completing its mandated tasks. Once its mandate ends, the mission stops the implementation of mandated activities and proceeds to a liquidation phase, when the mission remains in the country but is focused on packing up and leaving.
The first part of the liquidation phase involves a drawdown of mission staffing until the only personnel remaining are those required for implementing the closure and liquidation plan during the remainder of the liquidation phase. The departure of the liquidation team from the country marks the start of the post-liquidation phase, which focuses on tasks that do not have to be performed in the country, such as asset disposal, finalization of placement and separation actions for staff members, settlement of liabilities, and financial reporting. This phase concludes with the submission of the final performance report and final disposition of assets report to the General Assembly.
In the MINUSMA case, the unexpected and abrupt manner in which the mandate was terminated means that the mission will be simultaneously developing and implementing its closure and liquidation plan during the drawdown period specified in resolution 2690.
As of June 30, MINUSMA had an authorized strength of over 15,000 uniformed personnel deployed across four sectors, along with nearly 2,000 staff and UN volunteers stationed at mission headquarters in Bamako, five regional field offices in Gao, Kidal, Ménaka, Mopti, and Timbuktu, as well as a range of smaller satellite offices. Security Council resolution 2679 specifies that the withdrawal of personnel is to be completed by December 31, 2023. In fact, some mission personnel—including a liquidation team—will have to remain beyond that date to complete the activities that can only be done after substantive staff and the majority of the military and police components have left.
The liquidation team consists primarily of staff from the mission support component, but also includes functions that normally report to the Chief of Staff, including planning, best practices, and legal. Beyond the functions directly related to the implementation of liquidation tasks, the mission must also retain the staffing and capacities required to sustain its remaining personnel. This means some personnel in the areas of field technology, transport, medical services, and life support (which manages services such as fuel, rations for uniformed personnel, and catering for staff) will remain throughout the post-mandate period. The Security Council also authorized the maintenance of a guard unit beyond January 1 2024 to protect MINUSMA personnel, facilities, and assets.
The personnel drawdown will not be straightforward. The departure of uniformed personnel has to take into consideration constraints such as the available air assets, the state of infrastructure, and safety and security considerations. Contingent-owned equipment will also be repatriated, but on a separate timetable given that equipment has to be transported by land and sea (as opposed to by air for personnel). Military and police contingents generally retain a rear party long after the departure of the main body of individual formed units so they can accompany their contingent-owned equipment back to their respective countries.
The departure of civilian personnel must take into account how long specific functions are required during the closure and liquidation periods. Decisions on staff retention, separation, and termination have to adhere to the downsizing policy, and records related to time and attendance, pension, medical, and payroll need to be verified to accurately make final payments. For international staff, flights and shipments of personal effects have to be arranged. For national staff, job fairs have to be organized to provide opportunities for employment after separation. Throughout the liquidation period, members of the liquidation team will inevitably depart upon finding job opportunities elsewhere, thus requiring the mission to find ways to fill the resulting gaps, including by seeking temporary deployments of staff from elsewhere in the Secretariat.
Budget and finance
The preparation of budgets and performance reports requires the engagement of both substantive and support staff during the liquidation period. Some of the tasks that involve the input of substantive units include the preparation of the final reports of programmatic activities, closure of projects funded through the MINUSMA trust fund, resolution of relevant open audit recommendations, compilation of the results for the 2022/23 performance report, and preparation of responses to questions on mandated activities from the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions and the Fifth Committee.
Beyond budget and performance-related tasks, financial activities, including cash management, payments, and contracts closure, continue throughout the liquidation period. Once the liquidation team departs Mali, responsibility for residual tasks, such as accounts closure and financial reporting, will be taken up by the Regional Service Centre in Entebbe and the Office of Programme Planning, Budget, and Finance at Headquarters.
Asset disposal will be a monumental task, especially given the logistical challenges in the mission area, and could take at least a year to complete. UN-owned equipment in good condition and for which there is a demonstrated continuing need will either be transferred to other peacekeeping missions, placed in reserve at the Global Service Centre in Brindisi, Italy, or transferred to other activities funded from assessed contributions. The movement of both UN-owned and contingent-owned equipment takes place by land and sea. Road and infrastructure conditions will therefore present major bottlenecks, and providing security for convoys will be a major challenge.
Other equipment will be disposed of in situ, in line with the provisions of the Financial Regulations and Rules, which allow for the following, in sequence: (1) sale to other UN agencies, international organizations, or non-governmental organizations; (2) commercial sale or destruction and sale as scrap; or (3) gifting or sale at nominal price to an intergovernmental organization, government, or other non-profit organization, where doing so serves the interests of the UN. The gifting of assets is generally considered only after a review process that also takes into account a risk assessment under the human rights due diligence policy. Assets installed by the UN—such as airfield installations and equipment, buildings, and bridges—whose removal would set back the rehabilitation of the host country are to be handed over either in return for compensation or—with the prior approval of the General Assembly—contributed free of charge to the government.
Because many of the asset disposal activities performed during liquidation are not part of the normal activities of mission support components, missions often require specialized expertise to be temporarily deployed from elsewhere in the Secretariat to augment the available capacity resident within the mission.
As assets are disposed of or otherwise removed from individual mission locations, the liquidation team prepares to formally return control over those sites to the host government. A major element of this workstream—and one that is particularly important for reputational risk management—is environmental remediation, which involves activities such as waste management, addressing soil contamination and fuel spills, and the safe disposal of hazardous and toxic substances, including expired munitions.
Archives and records management
An underappreciated but critical liquidation task is the identification of mission records that need to be collected for transfer to Headquarters and the secure destruction of all other records—both hard copy and electronic—that are not of archival value. Records that need to be processed include not only those that constitute important primary sources on the implementation of MINUSMA’s mandated activities throughout its deployment, but also operational documentation related to personnel, investigations, and legal matters.
Liquidation in the context of UN transitions
Mission liquidations are an element of the broader process of transitions of UN peace operations. The nature and timeframes of transitions vary greatly based on factors such as the political circumstances driving the reconfiguration and whether a successor presence has been authorized. It can be convenient to transfer tasks and programmatic activities previously performed by MINUSMA to the UN country team, but—as the secretary-general’s report on transitions emphasized—the country team may not necessarily have the operational and financial capacity or presence to be able to take on many mission tasks. Moreover, the departure of the mission will also have an impact on access and the overall security situation throughout the country. These are considerations that affect all transitions, but the impact may be particularly severe in a context such as Mali in which the funds and programs and their donors have not had time to prepare for the implications of the mission departure on their activities and overall posture.
UN transitions are always complex undertakings, but the difficulties inherent in the liquidation and reconfiguration of the UN presence in Mali will only be exacerbated given both the lack of preparation time and because of the tension with the host government. The effort and risks implicit in liquidating a large mission in such a short time frame suggest that all missions should have contingency plans in place in case mandates are not renewed as expected, especially since mandates increasingly close not because of lack of progress in benchmarks, but because of political pressure, whether from host governments or members of the Security Council.
In the specific case of Mali, UN member states should appreciate the enormity of the task at hand and, in turn, ensure that the mission is provided with all the political and financial support required to ensure an orderly and responsible departure, including in the forthcoming consideration of the liquidation budget by the General Assembly.
Member states should also be realistic about their expectations of what the UN country team and other regional presences, such as the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, can accomplish. For all of the difficulties experienced by MINUSMA in implementing its mandate over the past decade, there remain many tasks that can only be performed by a UN peacekeeping operation, given their legal character, their doctrinal underpinnings, and their unique capabilities. As such, it is important to avoid saddling the country team and regional presences with unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve after MINUSMA departs the scene.
Eugene Chen is Director of Prevention and Peacebuilding at the NYU Center on International Cooperation. In 2019, he served as deputy head of the liquidation team for the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti.