Mali: Meeting under “Any other Business” on the Withdrawal of MINUSMA
Today (19 October), after the closed consultations on Somalia, Security Council members will hold a meeting on Mali under “any other business”. Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix and Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support Atul Khare will update members on the withdrawal of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Brazil, October’s Council President, organised the meeting following a request last Friday (13 October) from Lacroix and Khare.
Security Council resolution 2690 of 30 June ended the mandate of MINUSMA and requested the mission to immediately start the transfer of its tasks and the drawdown and withdrawal of its personnel, with the objective of completing the process by 31 December. The decision to end the approximately 15,000-strong mission followed a request two weeks earlier by Malian transitional authorities for MINUSMA’s “withdrawal without delay” during a 16 June Council briefing. Most Council members had serious concerns about the security and humanitarian risks that ending MINUSMA would pose for Mali and the region, as well as the short timeline for its withdrawal. But members took the decision to end MINUSMA, recognising that the peacekeeping operation could not continue without the host country’s consent.
In an 18 August letter to the Council, the Secretary-General said that “the timeline, scope and complexity of the withdrawal of MINUSMA are unprecedented”. Challenges, according to the letter, include Mali’s vast terrain, the presence of terrorist groups, the volume of the mission’s equipment, and recent developments following the 26 July coup in neighbouring Niger, which is a key transit country both for the supply of MINUSMA during the drawdown and the exit of its personnel and equipment. It also observed the risks that MINUSMA’s pending departure poses to the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali between former rebel armed groups in the north and the government.
The threats to the peace agreement had already been exposed earlier in August during the handover of the mission’s camp to Malian authorities in Ber, Timbuktu region. Fighting erupted over several days between the Malian army, purportedly supported by the Wagner Group (a Russian private security company), and the signatory movement the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) to take control of the MINUSMA camp; the situation led MINUSMA to move forward the date of its departure from Ber. As the departing UN convoy travelled to Timbuktu city, it came under attack twice, apparently by the al-Qaida affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which had recently announced that it was imposing a blockade on Timbuktu and would oppose the Malian army’s deployment to Ber. Five UN peacekeepers were injured, three of them seriously.
Since the Council’s last briefing on Mali on 28 August, during which members discussed the Secretary-General’s letter, fighting has escalated. Northern armed groups have attacked Malian forces in Bourem, Bamba, Léré, Dioura, and Taoussa. In a high-profile incident, on 8 September, JNIM attacked a passenger boat on the Niger river near Timbuktu. According to authorities, this attack, together with another JNIM assault on a nearby military camp, killed 49 civilians and 15 soldiers. On 2 October, Mali’s transitional authorities launched an operation to take the three MINUSMA camps in Kidal region—Aguelhok, Tessalit, and Kidal City. The Kidal region is a CMA stronghold. During several days of clashes, Malian forces that advanced north from Gao gained control of several localities, including the town of Anefis, which is considered as the gateway to the Kidal region.
Lacroix and Khare will update Council members on MINUSMA’s withdrawal in the context of these developments and the challenges facing the mission. On 14 October, the UN issued a note to correspondents saying that the “heightened tensions and increasing armed presence” in northern Mali were “likely to impede the timely and orderly departure” of MINUSMA and endanger the safe transit of UN personnel and assets belonging to troop-contributing countries (TCCs). The statement highlighted that since 24 September, MINUSMA logistics convoys have not been allowed to move from Gao to retrieve UN and TCC equipment in Aguelhok, Tessalit, and Kidal. “This could adversely impact the mission’s ability to adhere to the stipulated timeline” for completing the withdrawal, according to the statement. In addition, the situation in the north could force the mission to depart without being able to retrieve equipment belonging to TCCs or to the UN. Lacroix and Khare may also elaborate on other operational and administrative restrictions affecting the withdrawal, including JNIM’s blockade of the Timbuktu region as well as import bans that Malian authorities are imposing on MINUSMA.
On 16 October, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric announced that MINUSMA had begun to withdraw its troops from the Tessalit and Aguelhok bases, which would be followed by withdrawal from its camp in Kidal city. Amid the “rapidly deteriorating security situation”, Dujarric said that MINUSMA personnel in Tessalit earlier that day had been forced to seek shelter in bunkers due to fighting. He recalled that the government and the signatory armed groups are obligated to ensure the secure, safe, and unimpeded withdrawal of MINUSMA personnel and equipment. According to a 10 October MINUSMA press release, the mission had withdrawn peacekeeping troops earlier that day from outposts near its Kidal camp, which it had been operating with the reconstituted Malian Armed Forces Battalion (BATFAR). Mali’s reconstituted units are made up of former rebel combatants that have been integrated into the Malian army. For “humanitarian reasons”, according to the UN, MINUSMA allowed 111 personnel of the BATFAR to take refuge in its Kidal camp.
Mali’s foreign ministry issued a statement on 16 October in response to the UN’s recent announcements. It expressed “astonishment” and “denounce[d] the unilateral action of MINUSMA” to withdraw from the Kidal advance posts. Contrary to Mali’s claims, the UN has reportedly said that it informed authorities well in advance of its plans to vacate or dismantle these outposts. The foreign ministry further criticised MINUSMA’s “passivity” as the CMA took control of the outposts and seized military and other equipment. The statement also indicated that Mali had suspended authorisation of MINUSMA convoys to Kidal because of the security situation, which would be granted anew upon improvements in the situation. It added that the military is continuing its deployment, with an aim of taking hold of MINUSMA camps, in accordance with UN rules and procedures.
During today’s meeting, members are likely to express concern about MINUSMA personnel being caught in the middle of current hostilities and the increasing difficulties facing the mission’s withdrawal. Members are further expected to raise concerns that the mission is not receiving the full cooperation of the transitional authorities during “the drawdown, withdrawal and liquidation to ensure the orderly and safe withdrawal of the mission”, as called for by resolution 2690. They may reiterate that the government is expected to “fully respect all provisions of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) until the departure of the final element of MINUSMA from Mali”, as resolution 2690 stipulated. Among other issues, members might voice concern about the risk that MINUSMA may not be able to repatriate UN and contingent-owned equipment. They might also highlight the importance of fighting disinformation, which is another reported challenge complicating the withdrawal.
Members apparently considered the option of issuing a press statement on MINUSMA’s withdrawal in connection with today’s discussion. But it seems that this was not pursued given Council dynamics on Mali that would likely prevent agreement on a text. On 30 August, Russia vetoed a draft resolution that would have renewed the Mali sanctions measures, which led to the termination of the Mali sanctions regime. (For more information, see our 30 August What’s in Blue story.) More recently, Council members were unable to agree on a press statement that Russia proposed following the JNIM’s 8 September attacks on the passenger boat, because of apparent disagreement over whether to reference a UN role in supporting the 2015 peace agreement.