Critical Analysis: French President Visits Mali as French Troops Battle Islamist Militants

Armed Islamist fighters race near the Mauritania-Mali border on May 21st. (Magharebia)

Armed Islamist fighters race near the Mauritania-Mali border on May 21st. (Magharebia)

On February 2nd, French President Francois Hollande visited Mali, where French forces have been battling Islamist militants.  “We are serving a cause defined within the United Nations’ framework … to bring the entire Malian territory under the legitimate authority of the Malian president and then the leaders who will be elected by the Malians,” stated Hollande.  Mali, a former colony of France, requested French assistance as Islamist militants seized Konna on January 10.  After a military coup, Islamic extremists took over much of Northern Mali last year.  With France’s assistance, the key cities of Konna, Timbuktu, and Gao are now back under Malian control. 

Mali achieved independence from France in 1960, and after years of being ruled by military dictators, the country held democratic elections in 1992.  In 2012, however, Malian soldiers led a coup and overthrew the democratically elected leader, resulting in a power vacuum that allowed militant Islamist groups to seize control of northern Mali.  The Islamists had joined forces with the Tuaregs, a historically oppressed nomadic group from Northern Mali.  In 2012, as the Islamists pushed south, France responded to the pleas for assistance from the Malian Government, and has since reclaimed many seized cities.

The Islamists established strict Sharia law as they seized cities from the North and began pushing their way South, threatening Mali’s capital city, Bamako. Human rights groups claim that floggings, rapes, killings, and other torture are rampant in these areas.  Mali Minister of Justice Malick Coulibaly referred the situation to the International Criminal Court, and “the ICC Prosecutor has responded to the referral by announcing that her office will conduct a preliminary examination to determine whether an investigation should be opened.”

The militant Islamists in Northern Mali are allegedly the same group responsible for the recent hostage crisis in Algeria, which resulted in the deaths of twenty-three hostages and at least one American.  Mokhtar Belmokhtar , a militant who has sworn allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the crisis.  The Islamist group operating in Northern Mali, Ansar Dine, is backed by AQIM, and some believe that the hostage crisis in Algeria was fueled by France’s intervention in Mali.

Although the United States is increasing its involvement in Mali, U.S. policy prohibits direct financial assistance to the Malian Government because the current Government is in place as a result of a military coup.  However, the U.S. Air Force “has flown at least seven C-17 cargo missions into Mali, carrying 200 passengers, mainly French troops, and 168 tons of equipment,” according to Pentagon spokesman Major Robert Firman.  The United States’ increased assistance is considered legal because France notified the United Nations Security Council “that its mission in Mali is being offered at the request of the African country’s government, which is fighting ‘terrorist elements,’” claims Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. James Gregory.

Lisa Browning is a 2LE at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Staff Editor on the DJILP. 

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