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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

No Peace to Keep: A Failed UN Peacekeeping Mission

Written by: Jonas Piduhn

This article was published as part of a cooperation with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks. It draws from analyses by Alisa Rieth (12), Simone Schnabel (3), Jonas Schaaf (4) and Sophia Birchinger (5)

A Decade of War

On June 30th, the United Nations Security Council decided to end the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) by the end of 2023. This UN peacekeeping operation launched in 2013 following violent clashes between northern separatist groups and government forces. In 2015 the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali was signed between the government and an alliance of armed groups. Despite this agreement and the use of increasingly robust peacekeeping methods, the security situation on the ground has deteriorated. MINUSMA has not been successful in bridging inter-community tensions and has the second highest casualty count of all UN peacekeeping operations. The Malian Foreign Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, stated in an address to the UN Security Council on June 16th, 2023: “The Malian government asks for the withdrawal, without delay, of MINUSMA.”

The Security Situation

A crucial party to the peace deal with the Malian government was a group called The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CAM), an alliance of northern rebel groups. The alliance was previously divided into three separate movements but merged into a unified political and military entity in February 2023. Several key actors have joined the conflict since the peace deal was signed, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and al Qaeda-affiliated group: Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). ISGS and JNIM cooperated until 2019 but inter-group fighting led to JNIM controlling most of northern and central Mali and ISGS were pushed back to northern Burkina Faso. The stalemate between the Malian government and CAM harms both parties as territory is lost to the two jihadist groups. The stronghold of terrorism in Mali also threatens the stability of the wider Sahel as Mali is located along one of the main migration and human trafficking routes to Europe.

Outside Forces

MINUSMA aimed to support the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration measures agreed on between signatory parties in the peace agreement, most importantly the inclusion of former Tuareg fighters in the national army. In this peacekeeping operation, MINUSMA forces are not mandated to offensively fight insurgents but, given the complex security situation on the ground, the UN peacekeeping standard approach of mediation and peacekeeping was deemed unlikely to establish peace.

Government support for the MINUSMA operation steadily declined in Mali after the 2021 military coup. The now infamous Russian private military company The Wagner Group was instead brought in to support government efforts, signaling a geopolitical reorientation of the Malian government and a shift in military conflict dynamics.

In 2017, France, Mali, and four other governments from the Sahel (the so-called G5 Sahel), founded an anti-terrorism unit. But in 2022, Mali’s government decided to withdraw from the G5 Sahel. MINUSMA’s capability to effectively operate and thereby contribute to regional stability was further limited, not least because many of the key military abilities such as air superiority were provided in cooperation with the French troops that withdrew in 2022. The announced withdrawal of 3,000 troops from Germany, the UK, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin already before the June 30th UN Security Council decision was set to further limit MINUSMA’s capabilities to contain threats to peace and support security sector reforms.

Protecting Civilians

Despite MINUSMA’s presence in Mali, civilian casualties have more than doubled in 2022. Since the beginning of 2022, the number of people in need of access to humanitarian assistance increased by 17% to 8.8 million. Reports indicate that the Malian army, together with the Wagner group, were responsible for mass executions in the Central Malian village of Moura in March 2022.

In January 2023, UN experts called for an independent investigation of possible war crimes at this event. Following this announcement, the Malian government expelled the head of the human rights division of MINUSMA on February 5th, 2023.

Is the Time Ripe for Peace?

Where there is life there is hope: On April 27th, 2023 the Malian government and mediator country Algeria supported the revival of the peace deal. Already back in 2020, an openness for negotiations between the government and JNIM existed, when JNIM made potential future peace talks conditional on the withdrawal of foreign forces. MINUSMA is contributing to the ripening of the moment in this dimension by its transition out of Mali.

Political Transition

On June 18th, 2023, the Malian government held a referendum on the new draft of the constitution, which is the first step towards transitioning back to civilian rule following military takeover. The referendum was negatively impacted by the lack of acknowledgment of grievances between ethnic groups in northern, central, and southern Mali. The draft constitution provides amnesty to the leaders of the 2021 coup d’état and grants more power to the president. It was not supported by the CAM. Voting was not possible in some parts of northern and central Mali that are outside of government control. The results showed that 97% of the voters approved the constitutional draft with a voter turnout of 39.4%, according to government figures.

Opportunities for Facilitating Regional Cooperation

Mali’s 2022 departure from the G5 Sahel is seen as a “setback for the region” but the transitional period before MINUSMA’s departure from Mali has many opportunities to facilitate regional security cooperation. Partners such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are key to addressing regional security concerns. The G5 Sahel group should be seen as complementary to ECOWAS and the African Union, not as replacing them. Cooperation opportunities could include intelligence sharing on cross-border security issues like arms smuggling and establishing a comprehensive early warning system.

No Peace to Keep

As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres already noted in January, there is “no peace to keep” for the MINUMSA mission in Mali. The recent remarks by the Malian foreign minister indicate that even the consent by the host government for the peacekeeping mission has evaporated. Following the transition decision by the UN Security Council, MINUSMA’s remaining task is to facilitate an orderly withdrawal out of Mali that does not undo the partial progress made in the last decade. The next challenge for Mali is already ahead: it has presidential elections scheduled for 2024. 


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