Peace Science Made Accessible, Understandable, and Useful.

Militarization of UN Peacekeeping in Mali

Militarization of UN Peacekeeping in Mali

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Vela, V.G. (2021). MINUSMA and the militarization of UN peacekeeping. International Peacekeeping, 28(5), 838-863.

Talking Points

In the context of the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA):

  • The militarization of MINUSMA was reinforced by a robust peacekeeping mandate, cooperation with counterterrorism operations, and significant involvement of NATO countries.
  • Civilian peacekeepers alternately rejected or relied upon militarization depending on whether or not it facilitated their ability to accomplish their tasks effectively.
  • Even in a highly insecure environment and military context, military peacekeepers’ appreciation for civilian approaches to peacekeeping demonstrated resistance to militarization.
  • The emphasis on military technologies and strategies reproduced pre-existing power imbalances between the peacekeepers from the Global North and those from the Global South.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • In a highly insecure environment characterized by violent extremism, stakeholders should consider prioritizing political goals and leaning more heavily on unarmed civilian actors for peacekeeping as a way to resist militarization of the mission and address root causes of violent extremism.


Vanessa Gauthier Vela examines the robust peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA) and its subsequent militarization. Due to transnational threats of organized crime and domestic terrorism contributing to the highly insecure environment of Mali, the MINUSMA mandate evolved in 2016 to include cooperation with regional and international security forces involved with counterterrorism efforts in the country. The MINUSMA operation includes military and civilian peacekeepers from NATO and non-NATO countries. Notably, NATO countries are contributing more troops, staff officers, and technology for MINUSMA than for any other UN peacekeeping mission in Africa. Understanding militarization as a social process within MINUSMA, the author interviewed over 40 civilian and military peacekeepers in Mali. She concludes that MINUSMA’s collaboration with counterterrorism operations, the significant involvement of NATO troop-contributing countries (TCC), and the robust peacekeeping mandate reinforced militarization within UN peacekeeping. Her analysis reveals the various ways peacekeepers both reinforce and resist militarization.

Robust peacekeeping: “UN peace operations have become more ‘robust,’ meaning they are increasingly guided by mandates enabling them to use military force not only in self-defense but also to protect civilians, ensure humanitarian access, and/or support state authority.”

Peace Science Digest. (2016, April 4). The unintended consequences of “robust” UN peace operations. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from

Militarization: “‘a step-by-step social, political, and psychological process by which any person, any group or any society absorbs the ideas and resultant practices of militarism.’ Militarization can happen to someone or something and occurs in every life. It has to be understood as a process that can be charted over time and involves civilian actors.” Militaristic values and practices include belief in hierarchy, obedience, and use of force.

Vela quoting Enloe, C. (2016). Globalization and militarism: Feminists make the link. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

The robust peacekeeping mandate was intended to stabilize Mali but ultimately normalized the use of military force as a means to bring peace. Amidst MINUSMA’s involvement with the counterterrorism operations, there was a theoretical division of labor between the peacekeeping and counterterrorism operations. MINUSMA was meant to handle the political obstructions to peace, while other regional and international counterterrorism forces, such as FC-G5 Sahel[1] and French operation Barkhane, were meant to address violent extremism. Yet, the two became interlinked in an environment of ongoing violence and threats from armed groups. The demarcation between the Malian civilians and targets of counterterrorism operations were also blurred.

MINUSMA’s emphasis on military practices and technology marginalized civilian practices and non-NATO TCC peacekeepers. Military peacekeepers from NATO TCCs primarily worked in an intelligence capacity, while their counterparts from African TCCs were on the frontlines in more dangerous conditions. Military peacekeepers from NATO TCCs had greater familiarity with and access to military technology as well as specialized capabilities that also reproduced hierarchies. For example, Canadian peacekeepers were tasked with teaching peacekeepers from the Global South about how to improve air mobility capabilities­, thus fostering a hierarchy between peacekeepers in that some were positioned as more knowledgeable and skilled than others. This relationship between peacekeepers of different countries as a result of reliance on military strategy and technology reproduced pre-existing power dynamics between Global North and Global South countries. The social process of militarization relies on militaristic values, such as preference for hierarchy. Thus, the institution of hierarchy is essential in the process of militarization.   

Interview testimony on military and civilian peacekeepers’ experiences during a convoy demonstrate their resistance to and/or reliance on militarization. Military convoys for civilian peacekeepers were necessary for them to do their work in the field. The militarized space of the convoy illustrates civilian peacekeepers’ ambivalence toward militarization. They expressed excitement about putting on bulletproof vests and the desirability of militarization as it made them feel safe. Civilian peacekeepers also noted how militarization made it more difficult to establish trust and continuity with the local population amidst the frequent shift rotations of uniformed military personnel. Thus, civilian peacekeepers rejected or relied upon militarization depending on whether it facilitated their work by either fulfilling needs for personal safety or hindering trust-building with locals.

The interviews also showcased how militarization can be resisted even in a highly dangerous and militarized environment. Military peacekeepers identified “advantages in resisting militarization” by describing the need to deploy civilian, population-centered tactics of peacekeeping as compared to militaristic, enemy-centered tactics. Moreover, military interviewees expressed appreciation for being part of a civilian mission because it meant they could protect populations in need, which is not always the case in military operations. Military peacekeepers’ appreciation for civilian approaches to peacekeeping was a form of resistance. This demonstrates that, even in a highly insecure environment of Mali, resistance to militarization is possible.

Militarization within MINUSMA was reinforced by the robust peacekeeping mandate, cooperation with counterterrorism operations, and the significant involvement of NATO countries. The preference for military strategies and technology, driven by the use of force doctrine, NATO countries’ influence, and counterterrorism operations, created power imbalances and a hierarchy, characteristic of the social process of militarization. Yet even within this ongoing militarization, military peacekeepers partially resisted it through their appreciation of civilian duties.

Informing Practice

Although many consider violent extremism to be ideologically motivated, research has emphasized the role of identity in initiating and sustaining political violence. As culture wars erupt and economic circumstances change abruptly, people must navigate their place in an ever-changing world. As they do so, people may align their individual identity with “fundamentalist, ethnic revivalist, and populist nationalist groups.” Furthermore, once involved with these groups, people are likely to engage in violence to defend and protect their group against those trying to hurt them or reduce their group status. In the context of Africa, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has manifested counterterrorism operations across many countries. Aside from undermining the humanitarian aspects of the mission, counterterrorism coupled with ongoing peacekeeping operations is problematic because counterterrorism relies upon the assumptions of militarism. There is an assumption that the use of force can effectively combat terrorism and dissuade individuals from joining armed groups. In addition to a sense of identity and group belonging as reasons for joining and staying with violent extremist groups, research has demonstrated that individuals who join violent extremist groups in Africa are overwhelmingly motivated by an “acute sense of grievance towards the government” and believe “that government only looks after the interests of a few.”

As it happens, counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations tend to occur simultaneously in the Sahel region of Africa, including in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. Even as France winds down its counterterrorism operation in the Sahel, Barkhane, this year President Macron has maintained that “France is not withdrawing entirely from the region.” Furthermore, U.S. funding, training, and weapons for Burkina Faso’s military as part of counterterrorism efforts has “helped lay the groundwork for the country’s increased militarism—and, ultimately, the [January 2022] coup it produced.” Thus, if Western powers are insistent on addressing violent extremism in the Sahel region, how can this be done without causing further instability and militarization? Logically, a military counterterrorism response operationalized by outsiders in conjunction with the existing government that group members view as corrupt would only reinforce members’ innate need to protect their group.

Alternatively, if international and regional partners are to continue their efforts at addressing violent extremism in African countries, they should seek to pursue more political, as opposed to military, goals, such as ensuring the rule of law and accountability for government corruption. In the context of a highly insecure environment characterized by transnational threats, such as violent extremism, there is a need for non-militarized interventions to build peace as well as address threats of violent extremism. Building upon the insights of this research, stakeholders should consider prioritizing political goals and leaning more heavily on unarmed civilian actors for peacekeeping. Additionally, government transparency and legitimate accountability measures can be enforced by the international community to reduce bribes and cronyism. This is a viable pathway for resisting the militarization of peacekeeping missions as well as addressing the root causes of violent extremism in African countries. [KH]

Questions Raised

  • How can civilian peacekeepers be empowered to resist militarization in their peacekeeping operations while counterterrorism operations are ongoing?
  • How can international and regional partners interested in addressing violent extremism ensure political goals and the needs of civilians are prioritized?

Continued Reading

France 24. (2021, July 14). Macron announces France’s Sahel military force will end in early 2022. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from

Peace Science Digest. (2016, April 4). The unintended consequences of “robust” UN peace operations.Retrieved February 24, 2022, from

Peace Science Digest. (2018, November 12). Assessing armed and unarmed approaches to peacekeeping. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from

Peace Science Digest. (2021, November 4). The role of group identity in initiating, sustaining, and disengaging from participation in violent extremism. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from

Peace Science Digest. (2022, January 22). Militarized masculinities and the legitimation of violence. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from

Savell, S. (2022, February 3). U.S. security assistance to Burkina Faso laid the groundwork for a coup. Foreign Policy. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from

UNDP. (2017). The journey to extremism in Africa: Drivers, incentives and the tipping point for recruitment. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from

Key words: peacekeeping, militarization, MINUSMA, peacekeepers, Mali, NATO, UN peacekeeping, counterterrorism

Photo credit: NASA Johnson

[1] FC-G5 Sahel is the force component of G5 Sahel, a regional counterterrorism organization formed in 2014 by Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. France was heavily involved in the creation of G5-Sahel and continues to support the organization financially and diplomatically. FC-G5 Sahel operates in the region alongside other international counterterrorism operations, such as the French operation Barkhane.

Next article Why Do U.S. Congress Members Vote for Military Spending?
Previous article Los sistemas de paz existentes demuestran que las relaciones intergrupales e internacionales pacíficas son posibles