The United Nations in Mali: A New Approach to Peacekeeping?

Impartiality has been one of the guiding principles of United Nations peacekeeping since the organization’s inception. This principle has been applied from the first deployment of blue helmets between Egyptian and Israeli troops in 1956, after the Suez Crisis. This operation supported the role of the UN as a facilitator of inter-state settlements. As a passive enabler of local political initiatives, the objective of UN peacekeeping operations was to minimize frictions during and following peace negotiations.[1]

Since then, the global shift from interstate conflicts to civil wars has required a conceptual change in how impartiality is conceived, raising questions regarding the concrete meaning of impartiality, how to implement it, and whether it’s a desirable feature of UN peacekeeping. The progressive broadening of mission mandates has moved peacekeeping away from simple force interposition onto multidimensional missions, merging military policing with political initiatives such as demobilization and reintegration of former combatants.

This transformation had deep operational consequences. When acting as impartial buffers between parties, blue helmets were required to make minimal use of force.[2] Avoiding military confrontation is widely considered the best guarantee of impartiality, as violence is necessarily aimed against one of the parties who could, in turn, accuse UN forces of working with the enemy.[3] While most Cold War-era deployments could be limited to overseeing existing peace accords, more recent deployments have not had the guaranteed cooperation of local actors. In cases such as Rwanda, peacekeeping missions lacked the legal instruments to prosecute crimes that would have forced the contingent to deliberately target one side of the conflict.[4]

The Shocks of Rwanda and Srebrenica

In 1999, Secretary-General Kofi Annan recognized that “impartiality does not—and must not—mean neutrality in the face of evil; it means strict and unbiased adherence to the principles of the Charter—nothing more, and nothing less.”[5] Only five years before, the civil war ravaging Rwanda had escalated into a full-scale genocide against the Tutsi population. These events shocked international society, both for the violence on the ground and the inability of an existing UN mission to stop the unfolding tragedy. Critics primarily focused on the world’s major power, a power that had failed to back the UN, but the organization’s lack of preparation and resources also became a point of contention. In 1995, the UN was still coping with the disaster when, in the midst of the Yugoslav wars, a similar tragedy struck the village of Srebrenica. There, another UN contingent refrained from intervening the massacre of 8,000 Bosniaks, citing a lack of resources and the mission’s narrow mandate. In both cases, the absence of heavy military equipment emerged as the source of inaction. The UN was unwilling or unable to mount military operations against the involved parties.

Coffins containing the remains of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Vanderbilt Historical Review)

Together with the limits posed by the Security Council, the dogma of impartiality was called into question.[6] In his speech, Annan endorsed a linguistic adjustment in the peacekeeping dictionary. The old, interchangeable use of neutrality and impartiality had failed to account for the fact that the UN Charter is all but agnostic on matters of human rights. As such, since the 1990s the use of violence to protect human rights has been considered an acceptable deferral to the impartiality principle.[7] Politically and legally it thus became necessary to uphold the impartiality of blue helmets without binding them to a minimal use of force.[8] Impartiality and neutrality have been progressively decoupled. Where the former has become shorthand for operational adherence to the mission mandate without prejudice, the latter now indicates the “impartiality of the mandate,” specifically what should be factored in the Security Council’s decision to intervene.[9] Impartiality, in short, should be understood as even-handedness, meaning soldiers should base their judgement on the parameters fixed by the mandate.[10] Blue helmets shouldn’t be blind to crimes committed under their watch, but rather opt for a response enacting UN principles and the Security Council’s mandate. The logical conclusion is that impartiality on the ground is perfectly reconcilable with partiality (or non-neutrality) of the mandate. The Security Council’s resolution ought to be the mission’s only touchstone.

This logic hasn’t gone unchallenged, however. Arguably, it does not matter at which level partisanship lies; it will still be regarded with hostility by other actors, regardless of how impartially blue helmets enact the mandate.[11]

The 2015 Report of the Independent High-level Panel on Peace Operations is an apparently sophisticated response to this fault. The Report revisits the idea that the less violence the UN is involved in, the more it will be perceived as an honest broker, thus retaining its credibility. Of course, this does not mean peacekeeping operations should be completely demilitarized, but rather that they should proactively pursue a mix of political, developmental, social, and military solutions. It proposes to delegate more aggressive—and thus controversial—missions to regional partners, such as the African Union. [12] For better or worse, regional organizations are often perceived as more legitimate than UN forces, and as such can bear the reputational risk inherent in higher-intensity military operations.[13] Pragmatically, the UN gets the best of both worlds: resolute efficiency thanks to local partners and clean hands in preserving its mediating role. Yet, theory rarely unfolds as predicted.

Mali, the Trial by Fire

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, is maybe the most prominent mission applying the panel’s recommendations.[14] The conflict in Mali was sparked by an attempted putsch in 2012, a putsch that reignited separatist tensions in the northern part of the country, a region plagued by political indifference, bad governance, and transnational crime.[15] Profiting from the sudden instability, extremist groups and smugglers were able to exploit the fallout of the Libyan civil war, creating a strong basis of support in the Sahel.[16] The Mission’s mandate is thus to re-establish governmental control in the north of the country, stabilize key cities, and conduct demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of former insurgents.[17]

Mali UN peacekeeping forces (CGTN Africa)

The mission is the poster child of the new UN peacekeeping concept, as it operates in the context of a political process, namely the Bamako Agreement. More importantly, it collaborates with the French Operation Barkhane and the G5 Sahel countries to counter local peace spoilers such as smugglers, terrorists, and Islamic militias. However, the mission has encountered some significant challenges. From the outset, the government’s corruption and predatory behaviour has meant little progress in bringing good governance to the country’s north. The re-entry of the Malian government in the self-declared Azawad Independent State was only accepted by the separatists in exchange for institutional reform and decentralization.[18]

This situation has deeply affected operations for the United Nations mission in Mali. In theory, the UN’s collaboration with the central government shouldn’t be perceived as partial, because the agreement between parties defines the Malian government as the prime enactor of a country-wide consensus.[19] Unfortunately, the agreements are virtually unimplemented in multiple ways. Some groups were excluded from negotiation altogether, for example, and there has been little effort to deliver on peace dividends in the North.[20] Ultimately, without the Malian government upholding its side of the deal, there is little incentive for the insurgents to comply to the agreement. Since 2013, numerous groups—including the so-called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims—have been filling the ungoverned spaces left by the government, resuming attacks on Malian and UN troops. The government’s leniency towards allied militias has only worsened its reputation with locals, pushing them into supporting “forms of justice administered by jihadist groups...fairer than those of the state.”[21] Regardless of the blue helmets’ best intentions, they are perceived as the government’s agents. If Bamako’s legitimacy decreases, so will the Mission’s. For a force already perceived as an instrument of global powers, this can only spell trouble.[22] Politically, the UN’s role as a neutral implementer of the accords constrains its ability to act even-handedly and pressure the government into action.[23] Perceived impartiality on the ground has been steadily eroding because of the inability to pressure the government to change its attitude.

Wishful Thinking?

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali itself has shown little propensity to force a new peace process among the parties.[24] The UN has employed an auxiliary, technical approach when possible, and this is reflected in the military capabilities of the contingents. The Mission can count on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency capabilities deemed necessary as a self-defense tool.[25] However, this approach hides the highly political and partial nature of these instruments. Terrorism in the Sahel is often a seasonal activity, or at least a result of lacking economic alternatives. Nevertheless, the terrorist label inherently implies perceived lack of legitimacy for the insurgents demands—understandable in the detestable cases such as Al Qaeda, but politically naïve when it comes to single members or Tuareg separatists.[26]

Associating the Mission with counter-terrorism operations entails a marginalization of groups that could be integrated in the peace process. What’s more, uneven and slow demobilization efforts may actually push many parties on the ground to embrace activities that would exclude them from the peace process altogether, thus rendering the label of terrorist even more politically disingenuous.[27] Enabling G5 or French airstrikes by providing target information effectively contributes to an act of war, transforming the UN into a party to the conflict.[28] More broadly, what difference can it make to the population and insurgents if the UN is only financing African troops, or just pointing at targets to strike, without undertaking these actions directly?[29] For better and for worse, the UN will still be perceived as co-responsible.

In Mali, impartiality seems to always be the first doctrine thrown overboard in the face of operational difficulties. The incapacity of the UN to guide the political process has led to a steady erosion of perceived impartiality in the eyes of the local population. With Bamako finally restarting the political process, the questions is whether the distribution of peace dividends will also restore the UN’s legitimacy in the region.[30] Political leadership has been considered the best means to achieve operational impartiality, and only time will tell whether warring parties will respond positively or judge it as a smokescreen for a very partial fight against terrorism.

Broader questions also remain. Does the UN really want to pursue more partisan policies in its deployments? If so, can it really continue to profess impartiality despite the tools it employs? It is questionable whether the UN can really afford to shift political responsibility to local actors while renouncing to vigorous political initiatives as a mediator. To leverage its global legitimacy, the UN will need to take into account the inherently partiality of military tools and to work around its implications, insisting that politics need to come first.

Michelangelo Freyrie is chief editor at Aleph—Analisi Strategiche, a student think-tank focused on international relations and defense at Bocconi University. He is an undergraduate student in International Politics and Government.

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Header Image: A Senegalese UN peacekeeper patrols along with a Malian soldier in Kidal in July 2013. (Marco Dormino/MINUSMA)


[1] Daniel H. Levine, “Peacekeeper Impartiality: Standards, Processes, and Operations,” Journal of International Peacekeeping 15, no. 3–4 (March 25, 2011): 425,

[2] Summary Study of the Experience Derived from the Establishment and Operation of the Force: Report of the Secretary-General (UN doc. A/3943 of 9 Oct., 1958)

[3] Hikaru Yamashita, “‘Impartial’ Use of Force in United Nations Peacekeeping,” International Peacekeeping 15, no. 5 (November 2008): 616,

[4] United Nations, “Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations” (UN General Assembly, August 21, 2000), para. 50,

[5] Kofi Annan, “Impartiality Does Not Mean Neutrality” (January 22, 1999),

[6] Johannessen, “Neutrality and Impartiality of the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations.”

[7] Yamashita, “‘Impartial’ Use of Force in United Nations Peacekeeping,” 616–17.

[8] Johannessen, “Neutrality and Impartiality of the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations.”

[9] Yamashita, “‘Impartial’ Use of Force in United Nations Peacekeeping,” 617.

[10] “High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, “Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations on Uniting Our Strengths for Peace: Politics, Partnership and People” (United Nations, June 17, 2015), para. 126.

[11] This contradiction is particularly acute in case of the Force Intervention Brigade in Congo. See: Hunt, “All Necessary Means to What Ends?,” 113.

[12] Ibid. 357–58; “High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, “HIPPO Report,” 12.

[13] Sophia Sabrow, “Local Perceptions of the Legitimacy of Peace Operations by the UN, Regional Organizations and Individual States – a Case Study of the Mali Conflict,” International Peacekeeping 24, no. 1 (January 2017): 159–86,

[14] Andersen, “The HIPPO in the Room,” 352.

[15] Arthur Boutellis and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “Un Processus En Quête de Paix : Les Enseignements Tirés de l’accord Intermalien” (New York: International Peace Institute, January 2018), 37.

[16] Walter Lotze, United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), ed. Joachim A. Koops et al. (Oxford University Press, 2015), 856,

[17] Ibid. 854.

[18] Arthur Boutellis and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “Mali: Two Years After Bamako Agreement, What Peace Is There to Keep?,” IPI Global Observatory (blog), June 22, 2017,

[19] Boutellis and Zahar, “Un Processus En Quête de Paix : Les Enseignements Tirés de l’accord Intermalien,” 26.

[20] Boutellis and Zahar, “Mali: Two Years After Bamako Agreement, What Peace Is There to Keep?”

[21] “The Death of a Jihadist: A Chance to Curb Mali’s Conflict,” ECFR, accessed January 2, 2019,

[22] Sabrow, “Local Perceptions of the Legitimacy of Peace Operations by the UN, Regional Organizations and Individual States – a Case Study of the Mali Conflict,” 165.

[23] Boutellis and Zahar, “Un Processus En Quête de Paix : Les Enseignements Tirés de l’accord Intermalien,” 47, sect. 2–3.

[24] International Peace Institute, Stimson Center, and Security Council Report, “Prioritizing and Sequencing Peacekeeping Mandates: The Case of MINUSMA” (International Peace Institute, May 2018), 2.

[25] International Peace Institute, Stimson Center, and Security Council Report, 7; High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, “HIPPO Report,” para. 120.

[26] John Karlsrud, “Towards UN Counter-Terrorism Operations?,” Third World Quarterly 38, no. 6 (June 3, 2017): 1222,

[27] Boutellis and Zahar, “Un Processus En Quête de Paix : Les Enseignements Tirés de l’accord Intermalien,” 39.

[28] Ibid. 1124.

[29] High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, “HIPPO Report,” para. 232.

[30] Boutellis and Zahar, “Un Processus En Quête de Paix : Les Enseignements Tirés de l’accord Intermalien,” 51.