(Nairobi) – Côte d’Ivoire’s national commission of inquiry investigating the 2010-2011 post-election violence should extend its mandate by six months to August 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. The extension would better ensure an impartial and comprehensive investigation into crimes committed by all sides, Human Rights Watch said.
Although created in July 2011, the commission only began its investigations in mid-January 2012 and is already finalizing its report. It appears unlikely to have adequately either documented the conflict’s serious crimes or identified those responsible on both sides after only a month of investigations, Human Rights Watch said.
In meetings with Human Rights Watch, Ivorian civil society representatives, United Nations officials, and diplomats highlighted serious problems with the commission. They cited its failure to include representation from pro-Gbagbo groups and to consult sufficiently with civil society, and said the commission appears to have rushed its work.
“President Ouattara has repeatedly referred to the national commission as the foundation of the government’s efforts to achieve impartial justice for the horrific crimes committed,” said Corinne Dufka , senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To fulfill its mandate, the commission needs to reach out to everyone who suffered and witnessed abuses, regardless of which side might have been responsible. The government should ensure that the commission has adequate time and independence to conduct its work.”
Although the original decree allows for a six-month extension, Ouattara recently said  the commission’s report would be finished by late February or early March.
Ouattara established the commission by decree on July 20 to conduct non-judicial investigations into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law between October 31, 2010, and May 15, 2011. On August 10, Ouattara named Judge Matto Loma Cissé to lead the body. The commission was created after a UN-established international commission of inquiry  and international  human  rights  groups  found that both sides had committed war crimes and likely crimes against humanity as former president Laurent Gbagbo tried to hold on to power after losing the election to Ouattara.
To date, allof the at least 120 people  charged by military and civilian prosecutors with post-election crimes are from the Gbagbo camp.
When questioned about the one-sided justice that has so far marked Côte d’Ivoire, Ouattara has cited  the national commission of inquiry as evidence of his commitment to impartiality and promised to ensure that the people the commission’s report finds criminally responsible are brought to justice. Cissé has said  that in terms of justice, “it’s the commission that controls everything. It considers the events to be examined by the ICC, those that are or will be examined by the Ivorian justice system…. In fact, [the commission] opens recourse to justice for people who feel wronged.”
The primacy given to the commission makes it essential for it to do its job thoroughly and impartially, Human Rights Watch said.
The commission has 17 members, most appointed by ministries and parliamentary groups – all under the control of Ouattara’s political coalition. High-level UN officials in Côte d’Ivoire and Ivorian civil society representatives universally told Human Rights Watch that the body is perceived as political and not independent.
Ivorian government officials and civil society representatives noted that the pro-Gbagbo Ivorian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien, FPI) had been offered several seats on the commission, but had declined. This decision is part of the FPI’s more general boycott of the government, including the December legislative elections. It has made participation contingent upon the release of Gbagbo and other high-level FPI officials from detention. Gbagbo was transferred  to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on November 29, under charges of crimes against humanity. Others being detained have been credibly implicated by Human Rights Watch, the UN, and other groups in serious crimes.
The result, UN officials and Ivorian activists say, is that the vast majority of victims who suffered abuses by the pro-Ouattara Republican Forces do not feel secure speaking to the commission. This raises serious concerns of a one-sided report and demands greater efforts by the commission to solicit the testimony from victims of abuses committed by pro-Ouattara forces and to protect victims and witnesses from reprisals, Human Rights Watch said.
“The FPI’s apparent decision to set partisan politics above helping give voice to victims of abuses by the Republican Forces is unfortunate and misguided,” Dufka said. “But the commission should redouble its efforts to reach out to civil society and victims’ groups connected to both sides, rather than allow itself to be viewed as one-sided and political.”
During Human Rights Watch’s meetings with Ivorian human rights organizations and victims’ groups, some representatives from these groups decried the commission’s lack of collaboration to connect with victims and witnesses of crimes committed by both sides. The leader of a prominent Ivorian human rights organization told Human Rights Watch that the commission “never explained what they actually wanted from us. We were ready to bring everything we could to help, but first we need to know their methodology, what they want. They were never clear. We had the impression that they didn’t actually want [our help].”
The leader of another Ivorian human rights organization said that while the group had “consultative” meetings with the commission prior to its field work, the body “hasn’t really associated with civil society… nothing concrete. We’ve had no role in reality.”
UN officials and Ivorian activists likewise criticized the cursory nature or even complete lack of investigations in certain areas particularly hard-hit by human rights abuses or where a large concentration of victims remain. One UN official described the commission’s investigations as “cinema,” saying the commissioners arrive and perform a quick count of abuses in certain towns or villages, without in-depth interviews. The commission’s work has not included a trip to Liberia, where about 70,000 refugees remain – many of them victims of and witnesses to grave crimes.
After a delayed start, the commission appears to have sped through its investigations to meet an unrealistic timeline, raising concerns about the depth of its work. On January 2, the president of the commission, Matto Loma Cissé, was interviewed  by the Ivorian state-run newspaper, Fraternité Matin. She stated that there were “four lost months” after the commission’s creation, during which the commission did not have staff or a central office. Cissé also noted that she had only met in late December with the president of the Union of Cities and Towns in Côte d’Ivoire (Union des Villes et Communes de Côte d’Ivoire, UVICOCI), who “had promised to organize, the first week of January, a meeting with the mayors of Côte d’Ivoire to allow us to go do our work on the ground.”
After describing the struggles to start the commission’s work, which began in earnest on January 18 , Cissé was asked whether even a six-month extension of the commission’s work would be insufficient. In response, Cissé stated, “For those who are not yet deployed on the ground, judge for yourself. I won’t say that it isn’t enough time. But those that know how to read can draw their own conclusions.” The six-month extension would have given the commission until mid-July.
Now, however, according to Ouattara’s public statements and statements by government officials in meetings with Human Rights Watch, it appears that the commission is scheduled to present its report by the end of February – just over one month after it was able to effectively start its field research . The urgency appeared to arise after Ouattara promised in France in late January that the commission would complete its work by the end of February or early March.
Human Rights Watch called on the Ivorian government to ensure that the commission is able to complete a comprehensive, in-depth examination into the post-election crimes. This should include sufficient time throughout the country and in neighboring Liberia to build confidence with and interview victims on both sides.
“The commission has been given the enormous task of investigating the grave crimes that marked Côte d’Ivoire’s post-election period,” Dufka said. “An incomplete or one-sided report would impede efforts to provide justice to victims and bridge the communal divides that have spurred a decade of serious human rights abuses.”
Beginning in December 2010, after Gbagbo refused to accept the election results, elite security force units closely linked to Gbagbo abducted neighborhood political leaders from Ouattara’s coalition, dragging them away from restaurants or out of their homes into waiting vehicles. Family members later found the victims’ bodies in morgues, riddled with bullets.
Pro-Gbagbo militias manning informal checkpoints throughout Abidjan murdered scores of real or perceived Ouattara supporters, beating them to death with bricks, executing them by gunshot at point-blank range, or burning them alive. Women active in mobilizing voters – or who merely wore pro-Ouattara t-shirts – were targeted and often gang raped by armed forces and militia groups under Gbagbo’s control.
As international pressure increased on Gbagbo to step down, the violence intensified, Human Rights Watch said. The Gbagbo government-controlled state television station, Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI), incited violence against pro-Ouattara groups and exhorted followers to set up roadblocks and “denounce foreigners.” This marked, in many ways, the culmination of a decade of Gbagbo’s manipulation of ethnicity and citizenship, in which northern Ivorians were treated as second-class citizens and West African immigrants as unwelcome interlopers.
Hundreds of people from both groups were killed in Abidjan and the far west between February and April, sometimes solely on the basis of their name or dress. Mosques and Muslim religious leaders were likewise targeted.
Abuses by pro-Ouattara forces did not reach a comparable scale until they began their military offensive in March 2011 to take over the country. In village after village in the far west, particularly between Toulepleu and Guiglo, members of the Republican Forces killed civilians from pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups, including elderly people who were unable to flee; raped women; and burned villages to the ground. In Duékoué, Republican Forces soldiers and allied militias massacred several hundred people, pulling unarmed men they alleged to be pro-Gbagbo militia members out of their homes and executing them.
Later, during the military campaign to take over and consolidate control of Abidjan, the Republican Forces again executed scores of men from ethnic groups aligned to Gbagbo – at times in detention sites – and tortured others.
By the conflict’s end, both sides’ armed forces  had committed war crimes and likely crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said. An international commission of inquiry presented a report to the Human Rights Council  in mid-June that likewise found that both pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces committed war crimes and likely crimes against humanity. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights , the United Nations Operations  in Côte d’Ivoire , the International Federation  of Human Rights , and Amnesty  International have all released similar findings.
Immediately after the international commission of inquiry published its report, the Ouattara government announced that it was creating a national commission of inquiry. Given that the Ouattara government specifically requested the international commission, which reported on the same events and offered conclusions and recommendations that identified grave crimes by Ouattara’s forces that should be subject to judicial investigation, the timing raised concerns of a whitewash. An Associated Press journalist reported  at the national commission’s founding that the “wording of the decree implied that the commission would rebuff the accusations [by international rights organizations] and seek to exonerate Ouattara’s forces.”