The United Nations secretary-general is expected to deliver a report to the Security Council today that will make recommendations for or against the deployment of additional peacekeepers to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The report, which should be made public within weeks, is the result of a compromise struck towards the end of last month’s contentious negotiations to renew MINUSMA’s mandate, during which Security Council members discussed – but did not endorse – France’s proposal to authorize the deployment of an additional 2,069 uniformed personnel (1,730 troops, 339 police) to the Mission.

France’s proposal is likely to continue to face skepticism from other Council members. It comes at a time when most U.N. peacekeeping operations are slimming down or preparing for transition and exit. There is no doubt that MINUSMA does need additional capabilities to more effectively protect civilians, especially in central Mali. However, even if the Council were to authorize the increase, there would be other obstacles to overcome before extra peacekeepers could be deployed. Above all, any additional troops would only be able to offer short-term gains unless the Malian authorities simultaneously develop and implement a coherent strategy to reduce violence against civilians. Last month, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged “the Malian authorities to break the cycle of impunity and establish prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigations into all allegations of human rights violations and abuses, including those committed by the military.”

Why does a billion-dollar Mission need even more resources?

The answer is simple: MINUSMA’s resources have not kept pace with its mandate. In 2019, following a sharp deterioration in the security situation in the central region of Mopti, the Security Council added a second strategic priority to MINUSMA’s mandate. It called on the Mission to:

facilitate the implementation of a comprehensive politically-led Malian strategy to protect civilians, reduce intercommunal violence, and re-establish State authority, State presence and basic social services in Central Mali…

This marked a big shift for the Mission, which had until then been overwhelmingly focused on keeping the peace in northern Mali. Despite the vast expansion of geographic focus, MINUSMA’s troop and police levels have since remained unchanged.

Furthermore, the Mission enlarged its operational zone in central Mali – called Sector Centre – at the start of 2021 following a deterioration in the security situation to the south (see maps below). While this was necessary to enhance MINUSMA’s ability to intervene to protect civilians in the whole of central Mali, the enlargement of the operational zone exacerbated the shortfall of available resources in the Sector. Indeed, last year, the central regions of Mopti and Ségou accounted for 67 percent of all incidents related to the protection of civilians in Mali, but MINUSMA currently has only 16 percent of its troops in Sector Centre.

Caption: MINUSMA expanded Sector Centre at the start of 2021 to include the western part of Mopti region and the whole of Ségou region, extending the Sector across and up to the Mauritanian border.

France’s proposal specifically sought to address the imbalance in central Mali, but some Council members understandably wanted more details before approving any increase in the troop and police ceiling. What type of personnel are needed? What kind of operations would they conduct? How would these activities support the Malian government’s strategy? And how much would the increase cost? The secretary-general’s report is expected to answer these questions.

What purpose could additional troops serve?

Extra troops would potentially enable the Mission to increase the number of Temporary Operating Bases (TOBs) it can deploy at any one time, enhancing MINUSMA’s presence in areas where civilians are especially vulnerable. The Mission’s own internal analysis and research by my organization, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), have shown that TOBs and patrols in central Mali can be effective at protecting civilians and reducing the number of security incidents in a given area. However, deploying and re-supplying multiple TOBs simultaneously in any one sector is a major challenge because of the poor roads, vast distances, environmental hazards, and the prevalent threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes. Given that MINUSMA has maintained a TOB in Ogossagou (central Mali) since February 2020 amid ongoing concerns over the  Malian Defense and Security Forces’ (MDSF) commitment to protect the village following previous attacks, the Mission’s ability to deploy new TOBs to emerging hotspots is especially constrained in Sector Centre. Extra troops would considerably ease that strain. An enhanced capacity to maintain TOBs in Sector Centre should provide a better coverage of the territory, which can enable the Mission to get its troops to locations more quickly when it receives warnings of imminent threats to the civilian population.

MINUSMA’s troops not only provide physical protection to civilians, but they are also an essential enabler for the rest of the peacekeeping mission. For example, MINUSMA’s civilian staff need to travel to remote locations to promote social cohesion and facilitate political dialogue in areas affected by violence, as well as investigate alleged human rights violations and support the local justice system. Because of the numerous security threats, Mission officials travelling outside of U.N. bases in central and northern Mali require escorts from MINUSMA’s military or police units. The presence of MINUSMA TOBs can also be important in facilitating such activities. Additional capacity among the uniformed pillars could therefore be used to reinforce the whole-of-mission approach.

What type of troops and capabilities are needed?

Any new deployments would need to have a proactive mindset and specific capabilities to enhance MINUSMA’s ability to protect civilians. Specifically, troops would need to be well-equipped and capable of sustaining and protecting themselves in temporary bases in remote locations for several weeks at a time. Adding troops that remain largely confined to U.N. supercamps would have little value and should be avoided. The ability of the troops to counter the high threat of IEDs would be essential to ensure that peacekeepers can conduct patrols with confidence. Moreover, units that come with an advanced medical team would be highly desirable because this capability permits the conduct of long-range patrols beyond the zones in which MINUSMA’s aeromedical evacuation teams can fly to within the necessary timeframe to provide advanced medical care. Ground units that have such capabilities embedded within them can enable the Mission to operate in otherwise inaccessible areas.

However, persuading Member States to deploy highly capable uniformed personnel to a U.N. peacekeeping mission is no easy task. If the Security Council were to raise MINUSMA’s troop and police ceiling, the U.N. Office of Military Affairs and the U.N. Police Division would need to produce a realistic time frame for the generation and deployment of additional personnel to appropriately manage expectations. This timeframe should be based on a thorough assessment of how long it will take to identify and assess fit-for-purpose troops and police, negotiate agreements with Member States, expand MINUSMA’s camps to accommodate extra personnel, and deploy the personnel.

Overcoming obstacles

The imminent deployment of a Pakistani level-2 hospital to the MINUSMA supercamp in Mopti-Sévaré should eliminate one significant obstacle to securing troop pledges for Sector Centre. Until now, the Mission has been relying on a small, privately contracted facility to provide advanced medical care to wounded troops. Although several people have told CIVIC that the standard of care provided at the hospital is very good, the facility’s inability to deal with mass casualties has been a red-line for certain troop-contributing countries (TCCs) to deploy to or operate in Sector Centre. In addition, Pakistan is set to deploy armed military helicopters to Mopti-Sévaré early next year. The lack of military air assets in Sector Centre has greatly limited MINUSMA’s mobility in central Mali over the past few years. Not only does this constrain the Mission’s ability to intervene quickly and decisively to deter attacks against civilians, but it also means that U.N. peacekeepers often have to operate in dangerous zones without overhead protection. The prospect of troops being able to operate with more robust air cover, combined with the deployment of the level-2 hospital, should alleviate some of the safety concerns that TCCs might have when determining whether to pledge their troops to MINUSMA.

Nevertheless, one of the most important barriers to the deployment of additional uniformed personnel lies within Mali. MINUSMA’s base in Mopti-Sévaré is already full. Any deployment of extra peacekeepers to Sector Centre would be contingent on MINUSMA gaining permission from the Malian authorities to acquire more land and expand the camp. The Mission’s previous plans to develop the camp have often been delayed because it has been waiting for the Malian authorities to process and approve the UN’s requests. The COVID-19 pandemic and the two recent unconstitutional changes of government in Mali have certainly not helped, but it is imperative the authorities in Bamako avoid unduly prolonging such processes.

Mali needs a strategy to protect civilians

One should not forget that the government of Mali has the primary responsibility to protect civilians within its borders. MINUSMA is there to support, not substitute, the national authorities. Any deployment of additional blue helmets to central Mali must therefore be part of a coherent Malian-led strategy that prioritizes reducing violence against civilians. Moving beyond the Malian government’s prioritization of counterterrorism operations alone, such a strategy must address the root causes of intercommunal violence in central Mali and tackle the threat posed to civilians by “self-defense” militia.  MINUSMA’s support could significantly contribute to helping the Malian government achieve these longer-term objectives.

It is also vital that the Malian authorities make a concerted and sustained effort to reduce the alarming levels of civilian harm that have resulted from operations conducted by the Malian Defense and Security Forces (MDSF). MINUSMA’s own data records the MDSF as being responsible for perpetrating 530 human rights violations and abuses in 2020. Unless the Malian government recognizes and starts to address this problem, some Member States might remain skeptical about whether giving MINUSMA more uniformed personnel is the solution, regardless of what the secretary-general recommends.

Image: Senegalese soldiers of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali) patrol on foot in the streets of Gao, on July 24, 2019, a day after suicide bombers in a vehicle painted with UN markings injured one French, several Estonian troops and two Malian civilians in an attack on an international peace-keeping base in Mali. Photo by SOULEYMANE AG ANARA/AFP via Getty Images