Legal classification of the situation in Mali and applicable international law - October 2019



Under international law, the current situation in Mali consists of several “non-international armed conflicts” involving notably the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa), the French armed forces and several armed groups.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) applies to acts of hostilities and other events linked to these armed confrontations. The Malian context is also characterized by other acts of violence, including intercommunity violence, which are not necessarily related to these armed conflicts. If not, these other acts are covered (and prohibited) by Human Rights law and Malian law. The application of international law (IHL and Human Rights law) has important consequences, including for the legality of the use of force, the protection owed to affected populations and the classification of certain violent acts as international crimes.


In Mali, the context is characterized by violence in the central and northern regions of the country involving the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and their external supporters - the French forces, the armed forces of the United Nations Integrated Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the G5-Sahel Joint Force - and numerous non-state armed groups. The complexity of the current situation is manifested in particular by the proliferation of armed actors, the fluidity of armed groups and their shifting alliances1 , the interlocking nature of the conflicts between these different actors and, lastly, the diverse nature of the acts of violence (direct high-intensity clashes, attacks using improvised explosive devices, targeted kidnappings and assassinations, inter-community violence, etc.) .
The events as they are currently taking place in Mali require a legal classification in order to determine which rules of international law are applicable. In particular, the distinction between a situation of internal unrest and a situation of armed conflict is essential because the application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) (also known as the “law of armed conflict”) depends on it. In turn, the application of IHL has an impact on the legality of certain activities - such as the use of force - on the extent of protection enjoyed by persons affected by such violence, or on the classification of certain acts as “war crimes”.

IHL is not the only branch of international law applicable to these situations, since it complements Human Rights law, which applies at all times, including in times of armed conflict.