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Events of 2021

Malian soldiers arrive at Bamako’s airport in May 2021.

© 2021 Nicolas Réméné/Le Pictorium/Cover Images/AP Images

Human rights and security deteriorated in Mali in 2021 as abuses by armed Islamist groups spiked, a political crisis deepened, and impunity for past and ongoing atrocities by all armed groups persisted. Mali’s transition to civilian rule following the 2020 military coup suffered a setback after another coup in May, the third in under 10 years.

Armed Islamist attacks on civilians and government forces intensified, while the Malian security forces summarily executed numerous suspects. The number of internally displaced people increased significantly, bringing the total to over 385,000.  

The authorities made scant progress addressing rampant banditry or restoring state authority and services, including the judiciary, in the north and center, undermining the rule of law and confidence in the state. They made some progress delivering justice in terrorism cases, but not for large-scale atrocities implicating ethnic militias and soldiers during counterterrorism operations.

Political Crisis  

On May 24, the vice-president, Col. Assimi Goïta, detained transitional President Bah N’Daw, Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, and other members of a transitional government installed after the August 2020 military coup. After stripping them of their powers, Goïta was sworn in as head of state in June.

Goïta initially promised to abide by the 18-month transition to civilian rule and organize free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections by February 2022, as agreed after the 2020 coup, but later announced the timeline could not be met. At writing several key electoral deadlines had not been met, including updating voter rolls and a planned October 31 constitutional referendum.  

Abuses by Islamist Armed Groups

Islamist armed groups allied to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Greater Sahara killed scores of civilians, as well as at least 19 United Nations peacekeepers and over 120 government security force members.

On August 8, armed Islamists massacred around 50 ethnic Songhai during an attack on several villages in Gao region. On June 3, they killed 11 ethnic Tuaregs near Menaka. At least 33 civilians were killed by improvised explosive devices planted on roadways, including 16 people on May 22 in Gao region. On December 3, they killed at least 31 traders after firing on a bus bringing them to the Bandiagara market in Mopti region.

The number of civilians abducted or kidnapped by armed Islamists increased significantly during 2021, with those abducted including local officials, village and religious leaders, aid workers, and Chinese construction workers. French journalist Oliver Dubois was taken hostage near Gao. A Swiss missionary and at least one Malian aid worker were executed while in the custody of armed Islamists.  

In areas under their control, Islamist armed groups imposed zakat (forced taxation), beat civilians refusing to adhere to their strict behavioral and dress code, and implemented Sharia (Islamic law) via courts that did not adhere to fair trial standards. They also contributed to food insecurity by attacking farmers and besieging villages. In May, Islamist armed groups amputated the arms and legs of three men accused of banditry in Gao region.

Abuses by State Security Forces

Malian security forces were implicated in over 40 unlawful killings of suspects and civilians, and at least 20 enforced disappearances from December 2020 to October 2021. Most killings took place during counterterrorism operations in the Mopti and Ségou regions and targeted ethnic Peuhl.

In January, soldiers unlawfully killed eight people and disappeared two others near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso. On March 23, soldiers in Boni beat dozens of bus passengers after finding suspicious material in the baggage compartment. The bodies of at least 13 of the passengers are believed to be buried in a common grave. At least seven other men were unlawfully killed by soldiers from the Boni military camp in March and April. Several men were allegedly killed or subjected to enforced disappearance after their arrest by soldiers in Sofara and N’Dola villages in October.

The detention, in Bamako, of former government officials and others by the military government raised due process concerns. Five men, including a former prime minister and journalist, were detained in December 2020 for allegedly plotting a coup against the Malian transitional government. They were released in April for lack of evidence.

Following the May coup, the deposed interim president and prime minister were unlawfully detained under house arrest for three months. In July, a man accused of attempting to stab interim President Goïta died in custody under suspicious circumstances. At least three high-level government officials arrested in Bamako by the security forces in September and October were held incommunicado for several weeks and tortured in unauthorized detention facilities.

Violations of Children’s Rights

The United Nations reported that at least 60 children were killed and 71 were maimed by armed groups in 2021. Armed groups also recruited and used over 200 children as child soldiers. As of June 2021, insecurity forced the closure of 1,595 schools, leaving more than 478,000 children out of school.

Women and Girls Rights

An estimated 91 percent of Malian women and girls continued to undergo female genital mutilation and numerous women were subjected to sexual abuse by different armed groups. During 2021, seven officials with Mali’s Basketball Federation were fired or suspended, and the head coach was indicted, for their involvement in the sexual abuse of teenage players with Mali’s national youth team.  

Communal Violence

Dogon and Bambara militias increasingly targeted members of their own communities, apparently for their failure to provide recruits and support their military objectives. In central Mali, militias kidnapped dozens of civilians for whom they demanded considerable ransoms. These groups killed several hostages and others, including people they had detained at unauthorized checkpoints in central Mali.

Accountability for Abuses

Hundreds of detainees were held in extended detention awaiting court trials. The Specialized Judicial Unit against Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime (SJU), whose mandate was expanded in 2019 to include human rights violations, made progress investigating terrorism and a few atrocity cases. At least 14 terrorism-related trials, including for 2015 attacks on a night club and two hotels which killed 37 people, were adjudicated in late 2020 and 2021.  

The transitional government pursued a few other cases involving human rights abuses that involve high-profile suspects. In July, Moussa Diawara, a former intelligence chief, was arrested and charged with involvement in the 2016 torture and disappearance of journalist Birama Touré. In connection with the same case, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for Karim Keita, the former president’s son, who fled to Côte d’Ivoire after the 2020 coup. 

In August, a former defense minister and a former finance minister were arrested on corruption charges linked to the 2014 fraudulent purchase of a presidential plane. In September, the judiciary indicted and detained the commander of an elite police unit in connection with excessive use of lethal force which left several protesters dead in 2020. 

The minister of defense signed 10 prosecution orders against alleged perpetrators of four atrocity cases involving soldiers in 2018 and 2020. At year’s end, trials had yet to be held.

On March 15, a Bamako court dropped charges against 16 soldiers, including former coup leader Amadou Sanogo for the 2012 killing of 21 elite soldiers. The court cited the 2019 Law of National Understanding which grants amnesty for some domestic offenses but not for international crimes.  

Justice for communal violence was hindered by the reluctance of members of the security forces to help gendarmes arrest suspects. Only a few cases of communal violence were tried by the Mopti High Court, including, in June, a trial which led to the conviction, in absentia, of 12 Dogon men for the 2019 killing of 37 Peuhl villagers in Koulogon.

The report of the International Commission of Inquiry, established under the 2015 peace accord to investigate serious violations between 2012 and January 2018, was presented to the United Nations Security Council in December 2020. The report documented evidence of war crimes by Malian security forces and crimes against humanity by armed Islamists and ethnic militias.

Public hearings by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2014 to investigate crimes and root causes of violence since 1960, continued in 2021. Over 22,500 people have provided testimony to the Commission.

Key International Actors

In the wake of the May coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union suspended Mali from their decision-making bodies. In October, Mali’s transitional government expelled the ECOWAS special representative and, in November, ECOWAS imposed sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on members of the transitional government.

 Aid from the United States remains suspended pending free and fair elections. 

Operation Barkhane, the 5,100-member French counterterrorism force, conducted numerous operations, but in June, France announced a significant reduction, notably a halving of personnel and the closure of military bases in northern Mali by early 2022. 

A French airstrike on January 3 in central Mali killed at least 22 people. A United Nations investigation concluded that the majority of those killed were civilians attending a wedding. French authorities rejected the findings, insisting that the victims were armed Islamist fighters and characterized the UN investigation as "biased." 

The European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) and the EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) continued to train and advise Mali’s security forces. In January 2021, EUCAP’s mandate was adjusted to include the restoration of government presence in central Mali. Task Force Takuba, comprised of 600 European special forces, engaged in military operations throughout 2021.

In May, June, and September, the EU condemned the coup and urged the government to organize elections by February 2022. At the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the EU also stressed the importance of fighting impunity for abuses committed by terrorist groups, armed militias, and Mali’s security forces.

In June, the UN Security Council renewed for one year the mandate of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and expanded it to support Mali’s return to democratic rule. During a visit by the UNSC in October, members pressured the government to promptly restore democratic rule.

In March, the HRC renewed the mandate of the UN independent expert on Mali for another year. During a visit to Mali in August, the expert, Alioune Tine, noted that the security situation had deteriorated to the extent that the “very survival of the state” is threatened. In August, the Security Council renewed for one year the Mali Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts.

The International Criminal Court trial continued against a former leader of the Islamist armed group Ansar Dine on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual slavery committed in 2012-2013.