22 June 2023

How UN Peacekeepers in Mali Experience Militarisation and Power Relations

Recent UN peace missions are evolving in contexts where there is no peace to keep. But peace missions are more than just tools to build peace; they are living spaces where relationships and encounters occur between peacekeepers and with the host population. In her PhD thesis, Vanessa Gauthier Vela examines the experiences and perceptions of peacekeepers working in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in order to understand the interaction between power relations and the social process of militarisation.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

UN peacekeeping is a fascinating subject to study because it involves multiple activities and levels of interactions between people, and because of the mythical aspect of it. I was interested to explore what kind of peace the UN is producing, recognising that beyond its mandates, a peace mission is an inhabited space.

Within international spheres, the idea that security, development and humanitarian spheres have to work together more coherently to achieve durable peace has resulted in the multiplication of peacekeeping activities. At the same time, the UN is now deployed where there is no peace to keep and where it requires the means and mandates to protect its personnel and assets. Practitioners have criticised the approach of integrating security, development and humanitarian spheres because it has led to the prioritisation of military goals. I wanted to explore this new context of peacekeeping intended to produce peace, in which the UN uses an integrated approach in places where there is no peace to keep. For this reason, I chose to study the UN mission MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali). MINUSMA is a fascinating example of a multidimensional peace mission that has evolved in the context of transnational insecurity, in which counterinsurgency forces present in the region respond to threats. At the time of my fieldwork, MINUSMA had a mandate to collaborate with those forces due to the insecurity of the situation, which was a recent development in the history of peacekeeping. 

Feminist scholars in International Relations have long been interested in the social process of militarisation in relation to peacekeeping, as the military sphere seems to be contrary to the idea of peace. A peace mission creates an environment in which people interact through many exchanges and encounters. I wanted to understand how people experience the social process of militarisation and dynamic power relations in this specific context, and to question the “common sense” of linking militarisation and peace in UN peacekeeping. The goal of my analysis was to question this assumption by examining the consequences of a militarised context, militarised methods, and a militarised mindset in terms of what kind of peace the UN is able to produce.

Can you describe your thesis questions and the methodology you use to approach those questions?

My main research question is: How do militarisation and power relations interact in a UN peacekeeping context? It breaks down into the following questions: What is the relationship between militarisation and a peace mission? How is the mission’s mandate connected to the everyday lives of peacekeepers? How do individuals navigate power relations in their encounters and relationships?

I use a methodology based on critical approaches. The key concepts through which I interpret my data are militarisation, othering and protection, which come from feminist and postcolonial theorisation. I conceptualise militarisation as a social process that promotes hierarchies, normalises the use of violence, and reproduces the Other. Othering and protection are conceptualised as power relations, dividing people into dominant and dominated groups. The three concepts deconstruct binaries (ally/enemy, us/them, protector/protected) that feed and reinforce each other. When unpacked, othering and protection highlight gendered and racialised designations that overlap, even when they are sometimes contradictory. For example, the “Other”, the “enemy” and the “protected” are seen as being feminised, racialised, weak, dangerous, ignorant and irrational. I study two levels: the mission level (the link between the geopolitical context of MINUSMA and the mission’s mandate) and the local level (the everyday practices and experiences of MINUSMA personnel).

I chose qualitative tools to shed light on complex articulations linking the abstract and the practical. I performed a case study and gathered data from fieldwork involving interviews and participant observation. I used ethnographic tools to access the participants’ experiences and subjectivity. The data comes from three months of fieldwork in Mali in 2018. I had the opportunity to observe and interact with participants in the bases where they work and sometimes live, as well as during official activities and training. I conducted 67 semi-directed interviews with 73 individuals based in various locations. Most of them were peacekeepers (military, police and civilians – internationals and locals), and others were Malian professionals having to work in collaboration with the mission (state security and NGOs). The focus of the data gathering was relational. I wanted to understand what it is like to be a peacekeeper in MINUSMA. I chose to study MINUSMA because it is an excellent example of a contemporary mission with multi-layered mandates taking place in an insecure context, and because multiple troop-contributing countries (TCC) from the Global North were re-engaging. My two levels of analysis reflect that peacekeepers live their everyday lives in an environment connected with international issues and UN Security Council decisions. 

What are your major findings?

Studying MINUSMA by highlighting its hierarchisation processes shows that peace produced by the UN remains entrenched within the framework of global hierarchies and evolves into a military mindset. The reproduction of hierarchies can make it difficult for peacekeepers to work together toward a common goal, or to value Malian expertise.

The results show that at the mission level, militarisation is increasing in response to the insecure context, which impacts the power relations of othering and protection as it pulls MINUSMA’s practices in a militarised direction. In this context, TCCs from the Global North, already valued for their specialised capabilities, are assigned to less dangerous situations because of it. Meanwhile, Global North personnel consider TCCs from the Global South – who suffer higher casualty rates as a result of being assigned to more dangerous operations and locations – as inferior protectors.

At the level of individual relationships, the role of militarisation is more complex. Every relationship and encounter is an opportunity to situate oneself, and some people – including military personnel – may choose to reject militarisation depending on the situation. The importance of international civilians in militarisation is also interesting. Militarisation can be desirable for civilians, even if some aspects can be challenging, since it is presented as the first step required for them to do their job, it gives them a sense of security, and their proximity to the military sphere gives them power.

The findings also illustrate how power relations divide the categories of peacekeepers. For example, the ally/enemy and Other/us binaries are necessary in militarisation, but this way of othering the host population (as a potential threat) is incompatible with the need to include Malian personnel in MINUSMA. In the same way, in the (re)production of hierarchies in peacekeeping, the link with knowledge (expertise) is central. Concerning protection, the way to position oneself as a protector is to use these binaries to position oneself as a better protector than one’s local colleagues.

Using the conceptual triad militarisation-othering-protection proved particularly fruitful in identifying hierarchies, especially gendered and racialised hierarchies. I demonstrate that in peacekeepers’ everyday experiences, social hierarchies may not have the same weight in every situation, but they co-construct each other. The analysis thus underlines social processes that focus on hierarchies, not just differences. MINUSMA’s peacekeepers of all categories position themselves in relation to binaries: protector/protected, us/them, and ally/enemy. In doing so, they reproduce power relations.

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Vanessa Gauthier Vela defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in March 2023. Professor Anna Leander presided over the committee, which included Professor Elisabeth Prügl, Thesis Director, and Associate Professor Marsha Henry, Department of Gender Studies, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK.

How to cite the PhD thesis:
Gauthier Vela, Vanessa. “Militarization and Power Relations in UN Peace Operations: The Case of MINUSMA.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.
The thesis is embargoed until May 2026. For access, please contact Vanessa Gauthier Vela at

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: part of a photo by MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.