The United Nations Security Council is in the final stages of renewing the mandate for the peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA. As the council takes action, it should ensure that the U.N. and member states sustain their efforts to give the mission the resources – particularly critical air assets – it desperately needs to protect civilians.

In previous years, MINUSMA’s mandate remained overwhelmingly focused on supporting the implementation of the peace agreement in the country’s north, even as attacks on civilians were mounting in the central region of Mopti. That changed in June 2019, when the Security Council added a second strategic priority to the mandate that requires MINUSMA to help the authorities in Bamako reduce intercommunal violence and protect civilians in central Mali.

The addition significantly raised the importance of protecting civilians in the mission’s mandate, and over the past year, MINUSMA has taken numerous steps to carry out that responsibility. But it still faces a considerable constraint: while the mandate has expanded, the resources available to the mission have not.
Recognizing the glaring disparity between the expectations of the expanded mandate and the mission’s limited capacity to protect civilians, MINUSMA produced an adaptation plan in January. The plan outlined the capabilities that the mission requires to have any chance of fulfilling its revised strategic priorities.

One of the most important elements of the plan is the need for additional military helicopters, which would allow MINUSMA to rapidly respond to security threats and thereby enhance the mission’s ability to protect civilians. Air assets are crucial in Mali for several reasons: the enormous size of the territory, the frequent use of improvised explosive devices on key transport routes, the high propensity for flooding, and the scarcity of decent roads. All these factors mean that responding to imminent threats to civilians using land vehicles alone is typically slow, fraught with difficulty, and sometimes impossible.

Some Pledges, But Gaps Remain

The U.N. organized a Force Generation Conference in May to secure pledges from member States to fill these gaps. At the conference, Zambia pledged to deploy a military utility helicopter unit to the northeastern region of Kidal, something that MINUSMA has been requesting for more than five years. These military utility helicopters should greatly improve the mission’s mobility and allow peacekeepers to engage communities in more remote parts of Kidal. The Zambians also agreed to provide unarmed drones, boosting MINUSMA’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to monitor the movements of armed groups and identify potential threats to civilians before attacks occur.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has agreed to deploy an armed helicopter unit and unarmed drones to the Mopti region. This pledge will partially address one of the main imbalances caused by last year’s mandate, namely that the Security Council was asking MINUSMA to do much more in central Mali, even though the mission had no military helicopters and no ISR aircraft permanently based in the region. Since last year, MINUSMA’s operations in central Mali have been frequently compelled to borrow light attack helicopters from the mission’s bases in northern Mali for rapid response to deter attacks in Mopti. ISR aircraft also were borrowed to monitor developments in the central region. The deployment of Pakistan’s armed helicopter unit and the ISR aircraft should reduce the need for these suboptimal juggling acts that inevitably leave the mission exposed in vital areas.

However, there are still two critical gaps that remain unresolved.

First, no member State has yet pledged to supply military utility helicopters in Mopti, even though this is a capability gap that long predates the mission adaptation plan. Military utility helicopters, coupled with a sufficient supply of available ground troops, are essential for the protection of civilians for two reasons: they can deploy troops to 1) deter imminent attacks on villages, and 2) they can secure landing sites so that MINUSMA’s civilian helicopters are able to land safely. This second function can be decisive in facilitating civilian-led activities such as human rights investigations, social cohesion projects, and political dialogues that otherwise would not take place.

The second problem is that the U.N. has not yet found a replacement for the Romanian military utility helicopters that are scheduled to leave the northeastern Malian region of Gao in about three months. In addition to transporting troops, supplies, and equipment , the detachment has one helicopter on permanent standby to evacuate casualties to hospitals that are equipped to provide adequate medical care.

Germany, Belgium, the U.K., and Sweden are all planning to have troops based in Gao by the end of 2020. European countries attach huge importance to the provision of an effective casualty evacuation service, and as such, this gap urgently needs to be filled. The U.N. probably will have to contract civilian helicopters to act as a stopgap until a military replacement can be secured and deployed. This should enable long-range military patrols to continue without too much disruption. However, civilian helicopters cannot secure their own landing sites, so the mission will find it more difficult to deploy civilian staff to other parts of Gao to conduct activities designed to tackle the root causes of violence.

What is needed now?

Although the recent pledges represent a welcome boost for MINUSMA, it is unclear when these helicopter units will deploy. The time lag between making a pledge and deploying units to U.N. peacekeeping missions can be lengthy at the best of times, but the lingering concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic are likely to further complicate the process. Indeed, the rotation and deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in Mali, and at other missions, has been completely suspended for the past three months to mitigate the risk of transmission.

It is therefore imperative that MINUSMA’s renewed mandate requires the Secretary-General to inform Security Council members in his quarterly reports outlining the situation in Mali of progress and any delays relating to the implementation of the adaptation plan. These reports should include information to help manage expectations of what the mission can realistically achieve, and outline how any obstacles to the plan’s implementation are affecting MINUSMA’s realization of its strategic objectives and priority tasks, especially those aimed at protecting civilians.

Additional air assets will increase MINUSMA’s capacity to deter attacks targeting civilians and help the mission achieve its second strategic priority. But it is important to recognize that MINUSMA will never be able to prevent every attack while intercommunal conflicts are raging at their present levels.

As the second strategic priority makes clear, it is ultimately the job of Mali’s government to put in place a political strategy to protect civilians and reduce intercommunal violence in central Mali. This requires the state to re-establish its authority in the region and show itself to be a credible and fair source of governance. It is for the Malian government to address the underlying grievances that are fueling the conflict between communities and deliver basic social services. MINUSMA cannot and should not replace the responsibility of the Malian state in this regard – it can only support such efforts.

For better or worse, MINUSMA’s success or failure in protecting civilians will depend to a large extent on the Malian government’s ability and willingness to provide security, education, healthcare, and justice for all of its people.

IMAGE: A team of MINUSMA, composed of investigators from its Division of Human Rights and Protection, as well as the United Nations Police and its Technical and Scientific Police Unit, in the village of Sobane Da, in the Mopti region in central Mali in June 2019 to conduct an investigation into an attack on the village of Sobane Da on June 9, 2019, which killed dozens of civilians, including women and children. (UN Photo/Harandane Dicko.)