Members of Islamist group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa imposed Sharia law in northern Mali
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Context: Mali’s current crisis erupted in 2012 amid increased Islamist and al-Qaeda activity in the region, linked to events in Libya and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.  In March that year, military officers deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure ahead of April presidential elections, accusing him of failing to deal effectively with the Tuareg rebellion. Since its independence in 1960, Mali has been faced with demands for autonomy and independence from Tuaregs, who make up about 10% of its 14 million people.

In April, Tuareg rebels seized control of northern Mali, declaring independence. In May, the Tuareg MNLA and Islamist Ansar Dine rebel groups merged and declared northern Mali an Islamic state. Ansar Dine began imposing Islamic law in Timbuktu. In June and July, Ansar Dine and its Al-Qaeda ally turned on the MNLA and captured the northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, destroying many Muslim shrines that offended their extremist views.

By the end of 2012, Islamist rebels had consolidated their hold on the north and were advancing towards the south. Faced with the slowness of the regional response and the threat of an Islamist takeover, Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore asked former colonial power France for help. In January 2013, France sent an intervention force and rapidly recaptured key northern towns, including Timbuktu. European countries pledged to help retrain the Malian army.

France began withdrawing troops in April 2013, and in mid-year formally handed over responsibility for security in the north to MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali). Insecurity in the north persists, however. In November 2013, two French journalists from Radio France Internationale were executed in the northern region of Kidal.

After the March 2012 coup and an interim government, Mali held relatively peaceful presidential elections in mid-2013 which were won by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Parliamentary elections in December 2013 gave President Keita's Rassemblement pour le Mali (RPM) party a majority.

Negotiations between the Malian government and rebel groups, which had been suspended for several months, started again in September 2014 in Algiers. The most difficult talks are on the degree of decentralization or autonomy acceptable to all parties in the North, i.e. the place of the Tuaregs in Mali. Also at the heart of the talks are the disarmament and cantonment of armed groups, the fate of prisoners and return of refugees. The negotiation process, which has been ongoing for several years or even decades, will still take more time. But on June 20, 2015, recalcitrant Touareg rebel groups added their signature in Bamako to a peace deal hailed as “historic”.

Transitional Justice Mechanisms

ICC Investigation: In January 2013, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced she was opening an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Mali since January 2012. According to an ICC statement, a preliminary examination opened in July 2012 determined there was a reasonable basis to believe that numerous serious crimes have been committed, including murder, cruel treatment and torture, directing attacks against protected objects, summary executions and rape.

“At each stage during the conflict, different armed groups have caused havoc and human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence,” said Bensouda. “I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes as defined by the Rome Statute.”

The investigation focuses on crimes committed in the three northern regions of Mali. It followed a request from the Malian government in July 2012, which referred the situation in the country to the ICC, saying national authorities would be unable to investigate and prosecute crimes, including extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearances, and the use of child soldiers. Investigations are ongoing, but no cases have yet been brought against specific individuals.

National Trials: There have been efforts to prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses by national courts, such as the arrests carried out in late 2013 and early 2014 of over 20 soldiers, including former coup leader General Amadou Haya Sanogo, notably for the torture and enforced disappearance of 21 military “Red Berets” (loyal to former president Toure). However, the justice system has been criticized for its failure to prosecute crimes committed in the north of Mali.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission: On March 20, 2014, the Malian national assembly adopted a law establishing the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (Commission Vérité, Justice et Réconciliation, CVJR). This commission has a three-year mandate to establish the truth about crimes committed in the north from 1960 to 2013. The CVJR is to be composed of 15 commissioners. According to the law, the commissioners will be divided into seven thematic working groups, with two commissioners per group. The seven themes include: investigation of grave human rights violations both at the individual and collective level, reconciliation, establishment of inter-community trust, reparations, truth seeking, return and reintegration of refugees and internally displaced, research and documentation, preservation and reparation of harms to cultural heritage. The CVJR Commissioners have yet to be named and its launch may be dependent on the outcome of the peace process. The signing of a peace deal in Bamako on June 20, 2015, may mean it has more chance of becoming a reality.