December 12, 2013

In November 2010, a contested presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire sparked six months of violence in which at least 3,000 people were killed. After the crisis ended in May 2011, President Alassane Ouattara vowed to ensure justice for the egregious crimes committed by forces on both sides. He was praised at home and abroad for a commitment that offered the potential to calm the dangerous political and ethnic divide he’d inherited. This month, the Ivorian government faces a critical decision that will indicate whether it remains invested in impartial justice.

Right after the crisis, President Ouattara established a national commission of inquiry and a special cell to investigate the atrocities. By devoting resources to support judicial investigations of serious crimes, the government raised hopes that it was breaking from the legacy of impunity that defined the years under former President Laurent Gbagbo.

Investigations into the devastating crimes committed by pro-Gbagbo forces during the crisis have had some success, leading to charges against more than 150 civilian and military leaders as well as the conviction in military court of nine members of Gbagbo’s armed forces. The government should be commended for repeatedly rejecting the calls from Gbagbo’s party for a general amnesty, though greater efforts are needed to hold trials swiftly for those in pretrial detention.

Unfortunately, the serious crimes committed by pro-Ouattara forces have not received the same attention. Although the commission of inquiry reported in August 2012 that the Republican Forces summarily executed at least 545 people during the crisis, there has yet to be a single arrest for these crimes. A new round of trials in Côte d’Ivoire’s military court does include some Republican Forces soldiers. But none of the trials concern the serious crimes they committed in relation to the post-election crisis, the July 2012 destruction of an internally displaced persons camp, or the brutal crackdown after security threats in August 2012. The first trial, for example, was for a case of manslaughter by a low-level soldier in September 2011.

Although the special cell’s work has only scratched the surface, the government suggested in October that it would close the body when its mandate ends this month. That would probably be a death knell to the chances of meaningful justice for recent atrocities. The special cell allows for the accumulation of expertise in dealing with serious crimes and makes it easier to centralize the protection of judges and witnesses involved in sensitive cases – crucially important if cases are to proceed against military or civilian leaders on either side.

While the regular court system is ostensibly functioning after years of disrepair, prosecutors and judges are already overwhelmed with their daily docket. It is simply unrealistic to expect that they will have the time, ability, or means to build sensitive, complicated cases from years back, especially cases involving people in senior positions. This is compounded by the lack of a system for protecting judges or prosecutors, which undermines their ability – and, understandably, their willingness – to go after key military officials.

The importance of the special cell has been recognized by the UN Security Council and the Ivorian government itself. In early October, the government challenged the International Criminal Court’s case against former First Lady Simone Gbagbo on the grounds that there were ongoing proceedings against her in Côte d’Ivoire. The government cited the special cell as a sign of its will and capacity to try such cases. It will be astounding hypocrisy if the special cell no longer exists by the time the ICC judges sit to determine the government’s request.

Rather than disband the special cell, the government would go a long way toward demonstrating its commitment to justice by reinforcing its work. Over the last year, the Ivorian Justice Minister has emptied the special cell of its staff, replacing or removing investigative judges and reducing the original allotment of 20 judicial police down to 4.

At a minimum, the government should return the staffing to its original levels, provide security for those working on or testifying about sensitive cases, and publicly declare that it respects the independence and impartiality of the special cell – giving judges and prosecutors the support needed to pursue anyone, no matter the political affiliation or military rank, against whom there is evidence of having committed or overseen a serious crime.

Should Côte d’Ivoire continue on the path of one-sided justice, the biggest losers will be the victims and families of victims of the heinous crimes that the Republican Forces committed. Côte d’Ivoire’s decade-long crisis has been fueled by what one academic has called the “politics of resentment,” in which legitimate grievances build up and eventually burst into violence. The failure to ensure impartial justice for the crisis will only feed this narrative of resentment. If history is any indicator, that could sow the seeds for future violence.

Moreover, the absence of justice for the Republican Forces’ grave crimes has sent the message that those in power are exempt from the rule of law, which has consequences for Côte d’Ivoire’s broader recovery. When armed men carried out several attacks against the military in August 2012, soldiers – under some of the same commanders implicated in grave crimes during the crisis – committed a disturbing wave of abuses, including torture and mass arbitrary detention.

The UN Group of Experts also reported in April that some former rebel warlords – now military commanders – are plundering millions of dollars from the Ivorian economy through smuggling and a parallel tax system on cocoa and other exports.

The ripple effects of impunity for those who commit or oversee atrocities should not be underestimated. Long after guns go silent, warlords have little trouble finding ways to continue profiteering at the expense of the population. Ivorian civil society representatives and several donor officials told me in October that corruption was also pervasive within the civilian government. It should be no surprise that when military commanders have free rein to take cuts from the economy, civilian officials feel empowered to do so as well. A diplomat in Abidjan told me that the country was “drifting into a quagmire” as a result of impunity at all levels.

Impunity has been at the center of Côte d’Ivoire’s decade-long politico-military crisis. Until the government demonstrates the political will to apply the rule of law to everyone, including its allies, the country will remain on a tenuous path. Extending the special cell’s mandate and strengthening its personnel would be a strong step in the right direction.

Matt Wells is the Côte d’Ivoire researcher at Human Rights Watch

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