Mali: Briefing and Consultations
On Monday (13 June), the Security Council will hold its quarterly briefing on Mali, followed by closed consultations. Special Representative and head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) El-Ghassim Wane will brief. A civil society representative will also brief and is expected to provide insights related to youth and gender. Mali’s Transitional Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdoulaye Diop is expected to represent his country at the briefing. After the meeting, France (the penholder on Mali), is expected to share with Council members a draft resolution renewing MINUSMA’s mandate, which members will soon start negotiating. The mandate of MINUSMA expires on 30 June.
The upcoming mandate renewal negotiations will take place against the backdrop of major changes to the security landscape in Mali. Since late last year, the Russian private security company, the Wagner Group, has reportedly deployed to the country, and is supporting intensified military campaigns by Malian security forces in central Mali. Tensions between Mali’s transitional authorities and France came to a head in February, when France and its European partners decided to end their counter-terrorism operations in Mali, Operation Barkhane and the Takuba Task Force. Last month, Mali terminated its participation in the regional counter-terrorism force, the Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S).
The Secretary-General’s latest report on Mali, dated 2 June, says that the departure of the French and other international forces is likely to create a vacuum in parts of Mali that terrorist armed groups may exploit. Already, violence involving groups affiliated with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) this past March and April in the Gao and Ménaka regions, which resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and the displacement of 32,000 people in Ménaka, can be attributed to the imminent departure of these forces. The exit of Barkhane and Takuba, together with Mali’s withdrawal from the FC-G5S, means that responsibility for counter-terrorism operations “lies solely with the Malian Defense and Security Forces”, according to the report.
Wane is likely to note the UN’s intention, given these developments, to conduct an internal review of the situation and present its recommendations to the Council within six months on how MINUSMA can best continue to deliver on its priorities to facilitate stability in Mali. In their statements, Council members may welcome and express support for this review.
Developments since January have also been marked by MINUSMA’s increasingly difficult relations with the Malian authorities. Wane may comment on the increasing restrictions on MINUSMA’s freedom of movement imposed by the host country. These are particularly prevalent in the centre, where Mali has been conducting military operations. The restrictions include the establishment of no-fly zones, which prevent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights that are critical for providing security for mission convoys. In some cases, access for ground patrols has been denied. “The restrictions are in place in areas where there have been increased allegations of human rights violations and abuses and where foreign security personnel, as well as Malian military personnel, are allegedly present”, according to the Secretary-General’s latest bi-annual letter, dated 1 June, on the mission’s challenges, performance and transition planning.
Since February, Mali’s authorities have also been blocking the rotation of 2,480 uniformed personnel from seven West African countries. This appears to be in response to the sanctions that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed on Mali in January due to the delays in Mali’s political transition to restore constitutional order after coups d’état in 2020 and 2021. The UN review is expected to include an assessment of the cooperation with the host authorities.
The deterioration of the human rights situation, which the Secretary-General describes in his report as “one of the most disturbing trends”, is also likely to be a prominent issue at Monday’s session. The recently released quarterly report by MINUSMA’s human rights division, covering the period 1 January to 31 March, shows that terrorist groups committed the greatest number of human rights abuses (410). Total violations and abuses attributable to Mali’s defence and security forces rose from 31 in the fourth quarter of 2021 to 320 in the first quarter of 2022, as Mali intensified counter-terrorism operations in the centre. The human rights division report attributes the deaths of 248 civilians, most of whom are members of the Fulani community (232), to the security forces. These findings do not include, however, the widely reported incident in the central Mali village of Mourah, which took place from 27 to 31 March, because MINUSMA has not been granted access to the area to conduct its own investigation. Different accounts suggest that between 200 and 500 people may have been killed in that incident, including hundreds of civilians who Malian forces and foreign security personnel allegedly executed.
The discussion on Monday is expected to cover the delays in Mali’s political transition and in the implementation of the Peace and Reconciliation Agreement signed in 2015 to end the cycle of separatist conflicts in northern Mali. Wane is likely to mention Mali’s decision, announced on 6 June, to set a new two-year transition timetable, starting from 26 March 2022. ECOWAS already rejected a two-year extension of the transition at its summit on 25 March. In a 7 June statement, ECOWAS said that it regretted the decision and that the ECOWAS mediator to Mali would engage the authorities to “find a mutually agreed timeline”. Council members may also reiterate the need for Mali to finalise a political strategy for central Mali (where the majority of terrorist attacks and intercommunal violence occurs), to restore state presence, protect civilians and deliver basic services—challenges that have made the centre vulnerable to violent extremism and conflict.
The session is an opportunity for members to discuss with Wane the mission’s mandate. In addition to plans to conduct a review over the next six months, the Secretary-General has recommended a one-year renewal of MINUSMA, describing its presence “as necessary as ever”. The Secretary-General’s report also recalls his proposal from July 2021 to increase MINUSMA’s authorised strength by 2,069 uniform personnel. The Council, however, is unlikely to consider an increase in the troop ceiling until after the completion of the UN review.
Wane and members are likely to express condolences over the deaths last week of three MINUSMA peacekeepers, who were killed in two separate attacks on UN convoys on 1 June near Kidal and 3 June near Douentza. They might highlight the need to fill persistent capability shortfalls facing MINUSMA, such as air assets, which have become even more urgent given the departure of Barkhane. Members may also raise concerns over the disinformation activity in Mali. The Secretary-General’s report says that this activity has significantly increased and describes it as “increasingly systematic and orchestrated, and synchronized on an industrial scale”.
Discussion of Mali in the Council has grown increasingly polarised since the end of last year. The P3 (France, the UK and the US) and other European members criticise the Wagner Group’s deployment, citing its history of human rights abuses, and are concerned about the risk of MINUSMA indirectly supporting its activities. Russia and Mali deny the group’s presence, claiming that Russian personnel in Mali are there as military instructors as part of their bilateral cooperation. Moreover, while the Council previously followed ECOWAS’ lead and supported its positions on Mali’s political transition, Council members are no longer united in this approach, with Russia and China expressing sympathy with the Malian authorities over the challenges of holding elections because of the security situation and the risk of further political instability if elections take place prematurely.