The West African country of Mali was thrown into turmoil in March 2012 when its democratically elected president was overthrown in a military coup. In the security vacuum that followed, secular Tuareg rebels, who have long accused the Malian state of marginalization and neglect and had mounted a rebellion against the government, seized control of the northern two-thirds of the country and declared an independent Tuareg state. These forces were later pushed aside by a collection of well-armed radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM and its allies imposed a harsh interpretation of Sharia law in the territories they controlled, reportedly carrying out inhumane punishments such as floggings, stonings, and amputations, and destroying key elements of Mali’s cultural heritage.
In early 2013, these groups launched an advance south, capturing several towns and threatening the Malian capital. At the request of Mali’s government, France initiated a military intervention and, together with African forces, drove militants out of the country’s northern population centers. In the wake of these events, the UN Security Council voted to authorize MINUSMA to help support longer-term stabilization activities. The mission, which deployed in July 2013, was tasked with working to secure key population centers and help reestablish state authority in northern Mali; support peace talks between the Malian government and Tuareg separatists; monitor, investigate, and report on human rights violations; and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians who have been affected by the crisis.
The Security Council also tasked MINUSMA with supporting efforts to restore democratic governance and constitutional order in Mali, an essential step in larger efforts to stabilize the country. As part of this mandate, MINUSMA provided logistical support, technical assistance, and security to landmark presidential and legislative elections that took place in late 2013, ushering in a democratically-elected government for the first time since the 2012 coup. The UN helped transport election materials, facilitate the deployment of election observers, and secure nearly 21,000 polling stations. Overall, both elections proceeded in a relatively peaceful and orderly fashion, and international observers from the European Union praised their transparency.
While overall security has improved in some areas over the last three years, the situation on the ground remains very tense, marked by sporadic outbreaks of violence between government forces and Tuareg rebels, and continued attacks by radical Islamist groups, most notably on November 20, 2015 at the Radisson Blu Hotel. The UN itself has increasingly come under attack, with peacekeeping personnel suffering more than 100 fatalities, including 68 at the hands of militant groups, since MINUSMA first deployed. A February 2016 militant attack on the UN peacekeeping base in Kidal claimed the lives of at least five UN peacekeepers, before a further five peacekeepers were killed in May in an ambush attack in Mopti region. In the wake of these and other incidents, the Security Council voted to increase the mission’s authorized uniformed personnel contingent by 2,500 troops in June 2016.
In June 2015, Tuareg separatists and the Malian government signed a UN-backed peace deal, which, it was hoped, would help resolve some of the long-festering security and governance challenges in the region. Unfortunately, the parties to the agreement have made little progress in implementing its conditions, and violence continues to plague the North African country. On July 19, 2016, a Malian army base in Nampala was attacked by Islamic militants, resulting in the deaths of 17 Malian soldiers and injuries to a further 35. The attack coincided with intensified fighting in Kidal in Northern Mali between pro-government forces and Tuareg rebels, with the National Assembly responding by voting to extend a national state of emergency until March 2017.