Human rights deteriorated dramatically in Mali in 2022 as attacks against civilians by Islamist armed groups and killings of suspects by pro-government forces during counterterrorism operations surged. The government increasingly cracked down on media and opposition voices, narrowing civic space. The mounting abuses occurred amid a background of an ongoing political crisis and significant tension with Mali’s diplomatic partners, anchored in Mali’s decision to employ the Wagner Group, a private military security contractor with apparent links to the Russian government.
The transitional government that came to power in a 2021 coup—the second military overthrow in less than a year—undermined efforts to investigate the mounting allegations of atrocities by state actors. Impunity for past and ongoing abuses by all armed groups persisted.
Little progress was made in restoring state authority and services, including the judiciary. The humanitarian situation worsened as a result of global food shortages, the effects of climate change, and, for part of the year, regional economic sanctions stemming from the political crisis. The number of internally displaced people increased from 2021, bringing the total to over 422,000.
The engagement of the Wagner Group, and the mounting allegations of summary executions and other abuses by them, intensified tensions with other military partners, particularly France, which ended a decade-long military operation in Mali in August. Likewise, Mali’s relationship with the United Nations and neighboring West African countries deteriorated throughout the year, increasing Mali’s political isolation.
Political Crisis and Abuses of Civil and Political Rights
In June, the transitional government shortened the timeline for a return to democratic rule from five to two years, until March 2024. A new electoral law allowed for members of the ruling junta to run in future elections provided they resign or retire from security posts six months prior to voting.
Threats, harassment, and expulsions of journalists and bloggers created a climate of fear and self-censorship, especially regarding alleged security force abuses. In February, Malian authorities expelled Jeune Afrique reporter Benjamin Roger, and in March, they suspended Radio France International and France 24 from operating in the country after both outlets reported on security force abuses. In July, the authorities detained an online commentator, Alhassane Tangara, after a pro-government group denounced him on Facebook. On November 3, authorities suspended a Malian news channel, Joliba TV News, citing “serious and repeated breaches and violations of the substantive provisions of the code of ethics for journalists.”
Authorities detained several critics of the government, holding some for months without trial, including several who were arrested on trumped-up charges and tortured in 2021.
In January, security forces arrested and held for six months Dr. Étienne Fakaba Sissoko, a professor of economics, for alleged “subversive” speech after he criticized government appointments. The leader of the African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (Solidarité Africaine pour la Démocratie et l'Indépendance, SADI) party, Dr. Oumar Mariko, reportedly left the country after he was detained in December 2021 and later threatened with further detention for denouncing army abuses.
On May 16, security officials detained seven military personnel on charges of plotting a coup. At time of writing, the authorities had not provided any information about their whereabouts, raising concerns about their enforced disappearance.
Atrocities by Islamist Armed Groups
During 2022, various Islamist armed groups aligned with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Al-Qaeda expanded their attacks into southwestern Mali and to the capital, Bamako, killing hundreds of civilians, as well as scores of UN peacekeepers and government security force members.
On January 16, Islamist fighters executed four ethnic Dogon men after removing them from a convoy of traders near the town of Douentza.
Since March, fighters from ISGS have allegedly killed hundreds of civilians, most of them adult men, in attacks on villages in the Gao and Menaka regions, bordering Niger. Most of the victims were ethnic Daoussahak, a Tuareg sub-group.
On June 18 and 19, fighters linked to Al-Qaeda allegedly killed over 120 people from Dianwali, Deguessago, and Diallassagou villages in Mopti region.
At least 72 people, nearly one-third of them civilians, were killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) allegedly planted by Islamist armed groups nationwide in 2022, mostly in Mopti region.
In areas under their control, Islamist armed groups downed telecommunication towers, imposed zakat (religious tax), and implemented Sharia (Islamic) law and punishments via courts that did not adhere to fair trial standards. These groups also contributed to food insecurity by attacking those who did not conform to their vision of Islamic law, including by looting livestock and besieging villages.
The French journalist Olivier Dubois, kidnapped in Gao region on April 8, 2021, was still being held hostage by Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaa Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) at time of writing.
Abuses by State Security Forces
Malian and allied foreign security forces were implicated in hundreds of unlawful killings of suspects and civilians, mostly during large counterterrorism operations in the Mopti and Ségou regions.
In March, Malian and allied security forces allegedly summarily executed over 300 men in custody, including suspected Islamist fighters, in Moura, central Mali. The incident was the worst single atrocity in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict between government forces and Islamist armed groups.
On March 3, the bodies of 35 men, many blindfolded and most with bullet wounds, were found in Danguèrè Wotoro hamlet, Ségou region. The men had previously been detained in the Diabaly army camp, according to witnesses. Around March 5, Malian and foreign soldiers believed to be from the Wagner Group killed 33 men, including 29 Mauritanians, near Robinet El Ataye village, Ségou region. On April 19, Malian and allied foreign soldiers allegedly killed at least 50 civilians in Hombori, Mopti region, and on September 18, over 35 villagers in Gouni, Mopti region.
On January 27, soldiers executed 14 Dogon civilians in Tonou village in apparent retaliation after an army vehicle hit an IED. On December 31, 2021, during an operation in Boudjiguiré in Koulikoro region, Malian soldiers detained and later executed at least 13 men. Mali and foreign soldiers allegedly raped several women during counterterrorism operations.
There was little progress in investigations opened by the government into several of these incidents, and the authorities barred UN human rights investigators access to the locations of the abuses.
Violations of Children’s Rights
The UN reported that scores of children were killed or maimed by armed groups in Mali in 2022. Armed groups also recruited and used over 300 children as child soldiers. As of October 2022, insecurity forced the closure of 1,950 schools, leaving more than 519,300 children out of school.
Accountability for Abuses
Authorities made some progress in terrorism-related cases, but not for large-scale atrocities implicating ethnic militias and government soldiers. Hundreds of people were detained for extended periods awaiting court trials.
The government pursued corruption cases linked to the fraudulent purchase of military hardware and equipment during the administration of the late President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was ousted in a 2020 coup.
There was no effort to implement the recommendations of the UN International Commission of Inquiry into war crimes committed by Malian security forces and crimes against humanity by Islamist armed groups and ethnic militias between 2012 and 2018.
The International Criminal Court continued the trial of a former Islamist commander on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual slavery committed in 2012-2013.
Key International Actors
The deployment in late 2021 of the Russian Wagner Group, described by the Malian government as “military trainers,” and subsequent allegations of atrocities against them and Malian security forces, brought sharp condemnation from Mali’s foreign partners including the United States, France, Germany, the European Union, and the United Kingdom.
Russia took the lead in providing significant military assistance in counterterrorism efforts, while Mali’s relations with France deteriorated. In January, Mali expelled the French ambassador after France’s foreign minister questioned the legitimacy of the transitional government.
Strained relations between the EU and Mali over rights abuses and Mali’s partnership with the Wagner Group led to a significant reduction in the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) and the EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP).
In February, France announced the end of its nine-year counterterrorism operation, which, at its peak, had over 5,000 troops. It completed the withdrawal in August, a month after Task Force Takuba, the 900-strong European counterterrorism special forces, left the country.
In February, the EU imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on five members of the transitional government. The US froze military assistance to the Malian government in August 2020 pending free and fair elections. In November, France suspended development assistance to the country.
In June, after the transitional government shortened the timeline for elections from five to two years, the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) lifted the economic and financial sanctions it had imposed in January. At time of writing, Mali remained suspended from the ECOWAS and the African Union.
In June, Mali withdrew from the G5 Sahel, a 5,000-strong troop regional counterterrorism force launched in 2017, in protest after being passed over for the rotating presidency of the organization. The G5 Sahel also includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger. The EU expressed regret at Mali’s decision.
In April, the UN Human Rights Council renewed the mandate of the UN independent expert on Mali for another year. In July, the UN Security Council extended the mandate of UN peacekeepers, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). In August, it renewed the Mali Panel of Experts, which monitors the 2017 travel bans and asset freezes imposed on individuals obstructing implementation of a 2015 peace agreement.
Throughout the year, Malian authorities imposed operational constraints including no-fly zones on MINUSMA, obstructed investigations into alleged human rights abuses by state security forces, hindering MINUSMA’s ability to fulfil its mandate and straining relationships with troop-contributing countries. In July, Malian authorities arrested 49 Ivorian soldiers working for a MINUSMA contractor and days later expelled the UN spokesperson for comments made about their arrests. The soldiers were charged in August with “undermining state security.”