Mandates and Mali: The Challenge of Directing UN Peacekeeping


Main Image Credit Courtesy of Tsidoti


The mandate of the UN operation in Mali to which the UK is currently contributing is suffering from handicaps which have been known for many years, but have yet to be addressed.

It has become something of a cliché to describe UN peacekeeping as being at a ‘crossroads’. Over the last 20 years the organisation and functioning of peacekeeping seems to have been in a constant state of review, from the Brahimi Report to the High-Level Panel on Peace Operations (also known as the HIPPO Report) to the most recent initiative, Action For Peacekeeping (A4P).

Each of these has introduced a range of initiatives which sought to improve the performance and effectiveness of UN peacekeeping missions. But with large missions continuing in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and South Sudan with little sign of the missions being brought to an end, there continues to be debate about the contribution that peacekeeping can make to building a durable peace. While there continues to be a focus on the tactical performance of peacekeepers and the operational design of missions, perhaps attention would be better directed at the strategic level – on the mandates.

Holding the Pen of Peace

Mandates for UN peacekeeping missions are delivered as UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) and should provide the strategic political direction for a mission at its creation and throughout its life. They are produced as the result of consultation both between members of the Security Council (UNSC), and between the UNSC and the Secretariat. The development of mandates should be based on reports from the mission itself and inspections conducted on behalf of the secretary-general. Inevitably, this process is political and reflects the interests of the member states of the UNSC, particularly the five permanent members who retain a veto power. For about the last 10 years, a system has developed where either France, the US or the UK has taken the lead in the initial drafting of UNSCRs and then leading on negotiations with Russia and China on the text. Known as the ‘penholder’, the allocation of this leadership role inevitably reflects national interests with, for example, France leading on Mali and the UK on Cyprus.

A consistent criticism by the various reviews of peacekeeping was that mandates were too ambitious, with a routine mismatch between resources and objectives. It was identified that rather than focusing on strategic level objectives, mandates instead outlined lists of tasks which reflected the agendas of UNSC members rather than those directly related to enabling mission success.

To address the challenges identified in the HIPPO Report, there was a call to see mandates delivering prioritised and sequenced objectives rather than simply being a long list of tasks. The ‘Definition of Shared Principles’ that arose from A4P included a commitment from 152 member states to ‘provide clear, focused, sequenced, prioritized and achievable mandates…matched by appropriate resources’.

Better Commitment, Bigger Challenges

Despite this commitment, the delivery of such mandates continues to be problematic. As well as the issues arising from the structure and politics of the UNSC, the core objectives of many of the larger peacekeeping missions remain hard to deliver in practice. While a general move towards mandates that prioritised the protection of civilians from armed groups was seen as a positive move in the aftermath of the failure in Rwanda in 1994, the mismatch between a blanket commitment and the capabilities deployed can swiftly undermine mission credibility. This necessitates mandates that emphasise the need for detection and prevention, with the deployment of military force only if necessary, as well as providing a geographical focus where appropriate.

Furthermore, mandates also frequently include a task to support political processes which are designed to address the sources of a conflict. The mission is thus assessed against processes over which it has no control. For example, while a mission may be tasked with ensuring that there is accountability for gross abuses of human rights, those engaged in the political process may be prepared to negotiate that away or downgrade its priority.

The Mali Mandate

These issues are important as the UK moves its peacekeeping focus from South Sudan to Mali, an arguably even more complex and more dangerous peacekeeping mission. The UK government has indicated its intention to potentially expand its contribution further. The mandate for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is currently being reviewed by the UNSC annually, most recently under UNSCR 2531 (2020). Up until the previous iteration of the mandate, MINUSMA had one priority task – to support the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement between the government and the various parties to the conflict which had broken out in the north of the country in 2012. In 2019, after an increase in violence in the central regions of Mali, a second priority was added which was to assist with stabilisation efforts by supporting broader Malian efforts.

Thus, on the surface at least, MINUSMA had two clear priorities for its operations, and these were carried forward in the most recent mandate. However, that mandate breaks these two priorities into eight separate tasks of varying degrees of detail and then adds a further six including the protection of civilians, the provision of mediation services and the promotion and protection of human rights. While all these tasks may be important, they are not further prioritised or indeed sequenced, which raises concerns once again about the ability of the mission to meet such a detailed mandate.

Rather than providing strategic direction, the MINUSMA mandate reaches down into the detailed planning which would more effectively be the responsibility of the Special Representative, the Force Commander and other mission leadership. One of the challenges of delineating so many specified tasks is that it makes the plan less flexible when the circumstances change, as has been the case in Mali since the mandate was issued.

While elections were held in the country in the first quarter of the year, there was significant public disquiet about their conduct, leading to demonstrations in many urban areas. This, in turn, precipitated a coup in August, less than two months after UNSCR 2531 (2020). This has led to MINUSMA being unable to make any significant progress against its number one priority – supporting the peace process. In the meantime, the security situation continues to deteriorate with fatal attacks on civilians, peacekeepers and the Malian Security Forces.

The situation in Mali and the broader Sahel is complex with a broad range of security challenges being met by an equally broad range of national and international actors. Mali sits at the centre of this complex regional vortex, and MINUSMA has a key role in helping to stabilise the country and thus contribute to the stabilisation of the broader region.

Sadly, the current system, in the form of UNSCR-driven mandates, does not give sufficient strategic direction. They should provide broad objectives, suitably prioritised and sequenced, to give the mission’s senior management the flexibility to best use their assets in a rapidly changing context.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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Ewan Lawson

Associate Fellow

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