The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) faces an uncertain future. Following a tumultuous 12 months in Mali, the U.N. Security Council is negotiating MINUSMA’s next mandate and determining what the mission’s priorities will be after the present mandate expires on June 30. Both the security and the political challenges facing the 62-nation multidimensional mission have become even more daunting. The ongoing withdrawal of French and European troops from Mali, rising hostility towards U.N. peacekeepers from factions within and close to the transitional government in Bamako, and the widely acknowledged entry of Russian paramilitaries belonging to the Wagner Group into the Malian conflict all raise serious questions about MINUSMA’s role.

Furthermore, the closing of French and European counterterrorism operations in northern Mali, which is scheduled to be completed by August, has provoked uncertainty about whether the German and U.K. governments will continue deploying their troops within MINUSMA in the Gao region without the additional layer of protection that France has provided in the country’s northeast. The German government is willing to give the U.N. several more months to secure pledges for the deployment of attack helicopters to Gao to assuage the European contingents’ concerns about the heightened security risks they will face once French troops have departed. If the U.N. cannot find a willing and able provider of the required air assets, there is a strong possibility the Germans and British will withdraw from MINUSMA.

The numerous contextual changes have prompted some stakeholders to advocate for significant modifications to the peacekeeping mission. While certain members of the U.N. Security Council want to adapt the mission’s mandate and reinforce the focus on protecting civilians and investigating human rights violations, others will seek to emphasize state sovereignty over all other concerns. Gaining consensus will likely be more difficult than ever, especially given the frayed relations between western capitals and Moscow amid Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. Nevertheless, fears that the mandate will not be renewed at all have eased considerably after the Malian transitional government stated it would not seek to oppose the continuation of MINUSMA. This sentiment was broadly reflected at Monday’s meeting of the Security Council to discuss the situation in Mali.

Meanwhile, the situation remains dire for many Malians who face numerous threats to their security and their livelihoods. Multiple deadly attacks against civilians in central and northern Mali in recent months have driven many people from their homes. There were already at least 350,000 internally displaced persons in December 2021. The Malian authorities, MINUSMA, and U.N. member states must address these threats and better protect civilians, and there are several ways that could be accomplished.

What Should Not Change

Despite the evolution of the security and political environment in Mali, there are some fundamental elements of MINUSMA’s current mandate and operational footprint that should remain unaltered. First, the mission must retain its presence in central Mali where threats to civilians remain the greatest. MINUSMA has been mandated to protect civilians and promote human rights ever since it was established in 2013. Both tasks have recently become more difficult because the authorities in Bamako have imposed restrictions on all MINUSMA flights throughout a large swathe of central Mali where the Malian Defense and Security Forces (MDSF) and presumed Russian paramilitaries are conducting joint counterterror operations. These restrictions have hindered the mission’s ability to protect civilians because deploying armed helicopters is typically the quickest and most effective way of deterring imminent attacks. Gathering intelligence about threats to civilians has also become more challenging. But this does not mean the U.N. should withdraw its peacekeepers from these areas. Instead, the U.N. and member states should seek to persuade the Malian authorities to relax the constraints.

Second, MINUSMA must retain a military component, because deterrence through force is the only viable means the mission currently has for protecting civilians from violent extremist groups. Although MINUSMA’s ability to physically protect civilians is often temporary and limited, the use of forceful deterrents can be potentially lifesaving, such as when peacekeepers intervened in the village of Dounapen in early 2020. Moreover, a withdrawal of MINUSMA’s force component would eliminate its capacity to operate autonomously. The mission’s civilian pillars such as political affairs, civil affairs, and the human rights division all rely on the force for protection when conducting activities in central and northern regions because of the high security risks. Without the force, the mission would be entirely dependent on escorts from the MDSF to implement much of its mandate. The recent refusals of the Malian authorities to permit MINUSMA to fly to Danguèrè Wotoro and Moura to investigate allegations of war crimes have already illustrated the problem. Removing or reducing MINUSMA’s force component would make it even more difficult for the mission to independently undertake its mandated tasks.

What Should Change

The mounting allegations of human rights violations during operations carried out by the MDSF since the turn of the year should compel the U.N. Security Council to send a strong message. Ideally, the next mandate should reassert the importance of MINUSMA’s ability to investigate all alleged human rights violations as part of the wider fight against impunity. This will probably be difficult to obtain because Russia is likely to object to strengthening the language relating to MINUSMA’s human rights activities, especially since eyewitnesses have implicated presumed Russian paramilitaries in many of the violations against civilians while operating alongside the MDSF.

At the very least, the U.N. should protect its own reputation and avoid providing support for Malian units reportedly involved in summarily executing people, torturing suspects, and harming civilians. The U.N. Security Council should reinforce MINUSMA’s obligation to undertake due diligence assessments when considering requests for support from the MDSF. The wave of alleged atrocities in early 2022 makes it more important than ever that MINUSMA and U.N. agencies do not provide assistance to armed forces without thoroughly assessing the risks beforehand. In April, the EU indefinitely suspended its military training mission in Mali because it could not obtain assurances that MDSF units would not be conducting partnered operations with Russian paramilitaries. The U.N. must similarly ensure it is not supporting entities that have egregious human rights records.

The U.N. Security Council should also seek ways to give MINUSMA greater leverage with the Malian authorities to prevent it being further marginalized. As part of its current mandate, MINUSMA continues to provide various types of essential support to the Malian authorities. By contrast, the mission rarely seems to be able to leverage many compromises in return. This has been particularly pronounced since the most recent coup in April 2021, when the leading military officials in the transitional government ousted the civilian president and prime minister. From then on, the Malian government has been denouncing many of its pre-existing international partners as it has sought to shift its alliances.

The U.N., as an intensely bureaucratic and politically compromised super-structure, is among the softest of targets. Its peacekeeping missions dutifully provide support, but often struggle to defend themselves when subject to hostility from the host government and disinformation campaigns. Linking the support MINUSMA provides to the Malian authorities with the degree of cooperation offered to the mission would certainly entail risks, but it could help create incentives for Bamako to view MINUSMA as a comprehensive package rather than an à la carte offering.

One area where there should be a strong mutual interest to make progress is elections. Mali’s transitional government has repeatedly stressed the importance of reforming the country’s electoral laws and institutions to ensure the next presidential and legislative elections are fair and credible. It is imperative that any reforms reflect the best interests of the Malian people and avoid simply serving the narrow interests of those currently in power. While the Malian authorities last week announced a revised two-year timetable to complete the transition back to elected government, they have yet to propose a schedule that is acceptable to the West African economic bloc, ECOWAS. Regional sanctions therefore remain in force.

The U.N.’s engagement could be crucial in determining whether the attempts at reforming the electoral system succeed. While elections will not be a panacea, a democratically elected government and parliament is a vital prerequisite in the quest for a state that is accountable to the civilian population. The U.N. Security Council should therefore underline the importance of MINUSMA providing logistical, financial, and technical support to electoral reforms to enable the transition to advance and conclude on a successful note.

In sum, the peacekeeping mission’s purpose should not be to support the Malian government at any cost. Support must be based on a shared vision that advances peace throughout the country, prioritizes protecting civilians and mitigating harm to civilians during operations, and demonstrates a genuine commitment to tackling impunity.

IMAGE: Nigerian Policemen of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) patrol on the main square in Timbuktu as a woman passes from the left, on December 8, 2021. (Photo by FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images)