The year 2012 was one of unprecedented crisis in Mali, which has a tradition of moderate Islam and a 20-year democratic history. On top of the Sahel food emergency, the country was wracked by fall-out from an armed rebellion. Northern Mali is home to the Tuareg and Maure (Moor) ethnic groups, both traditionally nomadic.

The Tuareg had been in low-level conflict with colonial and post-colonial authorities for decades. Tuareg separatists protesting at marginalization, lack of development and neglect of the north, including during times of devastating drought in their communities, had carried out repeated rebellions in the hope of establishing a separate Tuareg state, Azawad.

In addition, in recent years the weak state presence had allowed armed Islamist groups and organized crime to operate and gain significant influence in the north.

The January rebellion, led by Tuareg combatants recently returned from Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011, spread through the northern Sahara region. The secular, separatist Tuareg group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) acted alongside Islamist groups, which also included some Tuaregs among their combatants.

The ensuing violence led to the internal displacement of roughly 204,000 people, while more than 200,000 fled into neighbouring countries. The rebels were accused of violating humanitarian law by executing captured soldiers, and of widespread abuses against civilians, including use of child soldiers and widespread, at times ethnically oriented, rape.

For its part, Mali's army was accused of indiscriminate bombing, of targeting Tuareg civilians in reprisal attacks, and of failing to protect Tuaregs and other minorities, including Arabs and Mauritanians living in the capital, from revenge attacks, including by self-defence militias of other ethnic groups.

In March, army officers, frustrated by lack of government support for their fight against the rebels, staged a coup. The rebels took advantage of the upheaval to further expand their area of control, declaring an independent state of Azawad on 6 April.

However, the MNLA was driven out by the Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). These groups destroyed very important cultural and religious sites, including mausoleums and shrines, and committed abuses while carrying out punishments under a strict interpretation of Sharia law.

In July Mali's Minister of Justice asked the ICC to investigate crimes committed since the beginning of the January uprising. In December the UN Security Council authorized deployment of an African-led force to support Mali's army in regaining control of the north.

Analysts raised concerns that military intervention could trigger further ethnic conflict, particularly in the form of acts of collective punishment against Tuaregs.


The armed conflict added to the burdens of a population already confronting food insecurity. Conflict interrupted basic services and destroyed health infrastructure, weakening responses to outbreaks of cholera and malaria.

Reports indicated that the strict imposition of Sharia law further impeded health services, with armed men at times disrupting services to verify that female patients and staff were covered, or banning radio-based health campaigns on religious grounds. As the year progressed, aid workers reported that child malnutrition in Mali was reaching emergency levels. In January 2013 an estimated 585,000 people were suffering from food insecurity, with a further 1.2 million at risk, out of a total population of 1.8 million in northern Mali.

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