Background Briefing

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In October 2004, after two months of investigations, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry will finish its report on serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law perpetrated in Côte d’Ivoire since September 2002. These violations include war crimes and crimes against humanity such as numerous massacres, sexual abuse and the widespread use of child combatants. After input from the Ivorian government and rebel coalition, the United Nations Security Council and Secretary-General will then give consideration to the report and its recommendations.

Human Rights Watch believes that holding accountable those individuals on all sides most responsible for serious international crimes committed since 1999, is an indispensable part of combating the prevailing culture of impunity, and indeed ensuring that peace and stability within Côte d’Ivoire take root. The pursuit of justice for victims must play a central role in all future peace summits, negotiations and other efforts by the international community to end the conflict. Given serious concerns about the ability and willingness of the Ivorian national courts to try these crimes as well as concerns about the degree of social and political instability in the country, justice for victims of serious international crimes in Côte d’Ivoire requires significant support and engagement from the international community.

Since the military coup of 1999, Côte d’Ivoire has descended from its position as a beacon of socio-economic stability in Africa, to being one of the continent’s most intransigent crises.  The political and social climate is dangerously polarized and characterized by intolerance, xenophobia, and suspicion. The 1999-2000 military junta, 2002-2003 civil war between the government and northern based rebels, and the political unrest and impasse that followed have been accompanied by a persistent, pernicious, and deadly disintegration of the rule of law. The issues at the heart of the Ivorian conflict—the exploitation of ethnicity for political gain, competition over land and natural resources, and corruption—continue unabated.

From 1999 onward, the Ivorian military, gendarmes, police forces, pro-government militias and combatants from several rebel factions have committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law with total impunity. Since 2000 the state security forces and their associated militias have largely ceased to work for the protection of the general population and have become partisan supporters of the ruling party and its economic interests. The 2002-2003 civil war, while short in duration, was marred by the perpetration of atrocities by both sides including numerous massacres, sexual abuse, the widespread use of child combatants. Neither the Ivorian government nor the rebel leadership has taken concrete steps to investigate and hold accountable those most responsible for these crimes. Perpetrators have no doubt been emboldened by the current climate of impunity that allows grave abuses to go unpunished.

Two incidents that occurred in March and June 2004 are particularly egregious examples of this deadly cycle of violence and impunity: In March 2004, a protest march by opposition groups in Abidjan was met with lethal force by members of the Ivorian security forces and pro-government militias. Local human rights groups and representatives of a victims’ association interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that at least 105 civilians were killed, 290 were wounded, and some 20 individuals “disappeared” after being taken into custody by members of the Ivorian security forces and pro-government militias.1 In June 2004, serious crimes were committed during clashes between rival rebel factions in the northern city of Korhogo leading to the deaths of some one hundred people. According to a fact-finding mission by the human rights section of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), many of those found in three mass graves had been  executed or suffocated after being held in a make-shift prison.2

While there has been no relapse into full-scale war since 2003, the country remains divided; the north and most of the west of the country remain under the control of the rebel forces while the government retains control of the south. Some 4,000 French troops monitor the ceasefire line.

The future of Côte d’Ivoire and indeed the wider West African sub-region is in the balance. The precarious ‘no war, no peace’ situation has been accompanied by a ‘start-stop’ pace to the implementation of the peace process.  Neither the faltering peace process nor the 6000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), established in April 2004, have been able to facilitate respect for human rights and the rule of law. The conflict in Côte d’Ivoire threatens to further draw in roving combatants from neighboring countries. If this happens, the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire would jeopardize the already precarious stability within the region.

The United Nations has played a key role in investigating serious crimes committed in Côte d’Ivoire and, since 2000, has dispatched three independent commissions of inquiry. The most recent commission, investigating allegations of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law perpetrated in Côte d’Ivoire since September 19, 2002, is currently preparing its report.  Human Rights Watch believes the Commission of Inquiry report must include concrete recommendations on how to hold accountable those individuals most responsible for atrocities committed in Cote d’Ivoire. The Security Council and Secretary-General must then act on these recommendations without delay.

Human Rights Watch takes the view that national courts have primary responsibility for prosecutions of crimes committed within national borders; however, when national justice systems are unwilling or unable to prosecute serious violations of international law, alternative judicial mechanisms must be considered. There are serious concerns about the willingness and ability of the Ivorian national courts to prosecute serious international crimes committed since 1999. The Ivorian government has demonstrated little political will to hold accountable perpetrators within the government or security forces. Within rebel-held areas – thought to be at least fifty percent of the national territory – there are no legally constituted courts, nor has the rebel leadership established a legitimate judicial authority or shown any political will to try serious crimes in which their commanders or combatants were involved. While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the Ivorian judiciary has in practice succumbed to pressure from the executive branch and outside influences, most notably corruption. There are also frequent cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, and extended pre-trial detention without the benefit of public defenders. Lastly, the security situation in the country remains divided and polarized along ethnic, religious and political party lines, and would thus create huge challenges for the adequate protection of witnesses and court staff.

Human Rights Watch therefore urges the Commission of Inquiry to strongly consider recommending an international or hybrid accountability mechanism, and that the government lodge an ad hoc declaration accepting the exercise of jurisdiction by the International Criminal Court with the ICC Registrar pursuant to Article 12(3) of the Rome Statute. The Security Council could also refer the situation in Côte d’Ivoire to the ICC.

[1] See “Human Rights Violations in Abidjan During an Opposition Demonstration – March 2004,” Human Rights Watch Report, October 2004 (available October 7, 2004).

[2] United Nations Security Council, Second report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire, S/2004/697, August 2004, (paragraph 38.)

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