Members of the U.N. Security Council, in a unanimous vote, called on members of the Economic Community of West African States to outline plans for military deployment to Mali within 45 days.
Foreign and Islamic rebels declared autonomy for northern Mali following a series of political upheavals early this year. A U.N. human rights official said northern rebels had carried out "systemic" abuses that include executions, mutilations and stoning.
Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the U.S. government, said Washington supports an African-led intervention in Mali to restore security.
"The United States believes that ECOWAS and the African Union should play a prominent role in planning and implementing any such response, with strong and active support from the international community," she said in a statement. "Both military and civilian elements will be essential in responding to the emerging threats in Mali and the Sahel."
Mali's central government in Bamako last month agreed to host a 3,000-troop strong military unit backed by ECOWAS.