Background Briefing

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In the interest of the peace process in Côte d’Ivoire, internationally supported initiatives designed to restrain abusers and combat impunity have been put on hold. Yet the continuing abuses of human rights and the degradation of the rule of law is a major impediment to the peace process. The failure of three successive peace agreements to resolve the political-military standoff in Côte d’Ivoire has resulted in a nearly three-year “no peace no war” stalemate, with disastrous consequences for ordinary Ivorians. Not only has the impasse facilitated widespread and serious human rights abuses by all sides, it has led to a dangerous degradation of state institutions designed to protect and uphold basic human rights. In government-controlled areas, the police and army often prey on civilians they are entrusted to protect while the judicial system offers little legal recourse. The northern-based New Forces rebels have not established functioning governance institutions in the territory they control, and instead rule by threat, intimidation, or outright use of force against civilians. The standoff has also wrought an unrelenting deterioration of the humanitarian situation, especially in the rebel-held north.

Since 2002 Côte d’Ivoire has effectively been divided between the government-controlled south and rebel-held north, with a buffer zone in between patrolled by United Nations (U.N.) and French forces. In September 2005 a presidential election scheduled for October 30, 2005 was cancelled, dashing the hopes of Ivorians and the international community to resolve the three-year political-military crisis and reunify the country. To avoid a constitutional crisis and avert the complete collapse of the halting peace process, in October 2005 the African Union (A.U.) announced—and the U.N. Security Council endorsed—a plan to allow President Laurent Gbagbo to remain in power for another year until elections could be held no later than October 30, 2006.


At checkpoints in government-held areas the security forces regularly abuse their power by extorting and robbing civilians. The state security forces are buttressed by government-supported militias, ill-trained forces that regularly harass, intimidate, and often terrorize the populace, particularly persons believed to be sympathetic to the New Forces rebels and political opposition. According to reports by local and international human rights monitors, journalists and diplomats, members of the government’s official security forces including the army, police, and the forces of the newly-formed Security Operations Command Center have in 2005 reportedly committed numerous extrajudicial executions, mostly under the guise of fighting crime.

In the north, members of the New Forces rebels regularly exploit their power and systematically extort money from civilians at checkpoints and in the towns and villages under their control. There are also credible reports of New Forces rebels committing extrajudicial executions of individuals suspected of working as government infiltrators.

The government has not taken meaningful steps to hold perpetrators of recent human rights violations accountable, let alone bring to justice those responsible for serious international crimes in the past (including human rights abuses and war crimes committed during the 1999-2000 military junta, the 2000 elections, and the 2002-2003 armed conflict, as well as the most serious incidents since the end of the cessation of hostilities). The leadership of the New Forces has not punished perpetrators of crimes who are within its ranks, nor has it set up any real legal system in the areas under its control.  Meanwhile, the international community, fearful of undermining efforts to end the political and military stalemate, has been less than robust in implementing a U.N. Security Council resolution providing for sanctions against persons implicated in human rights abuses, and in pressing for prosecutions.  

The failure of the Ivorian government and rebels to resolve the issues which gave rise to the war—disputes over citizenship, the eligibility to contest elections, and rural land tenure—increases the likelihood of resumed armed conflict between the government and New Forces, or other political violence, such as a military coup or localized clashes around Abidjan or in the restive cocoa and coffee-producing areas of the west. In the event of renewed violence, the risk to civilian life and property remains high. The force that currently stands between the rebel and government forces comprises some 6,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops, and 4,000 more heavily armed French soldiers under separate command, but the U.N. says this is too small a force to ensure peacekeeping and protection for civilians in imminent danger. The U.N. has asked for more troops to improve the capacity to protect civilians. The continued instability in Côte d’Ivoire also threatens to draw in more combatants from neighboring countries and so jeopardize the current tenuous stability of the region.

Putting justice on hold for an elusive final settlement denies victims the right to see those responsible for serious crimes under international law held accountable, and undermines the rule of law, making it even more difficult to rebuild the country once the crisis is resolved. Moreover, this approach—and the pervasive culture of impunity it has created—appears to have emboldened perpetrators to commit ever-increasing acts of violence against civilians.

To begin to address this steady entrenchment of impunity in Côte d’Ivoire, the international community, primarily the United Nations, must take key steps. First, in order to identify individuals implicated in past human rights abuses, the U.N. Security Council should make public the U.N. commission of inquiry report into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law (the laws of war) since September 2002. Second, to restrain the future actions of alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses, the U.N. Sanctions Committee on Côte d’Ivoire should immediately implement economic and travel sanctions, authorized under Security Council resolution 1572, on individuals determined to be responsible for serious human rights violations. Finally, in an effort to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court should promptly take concrete steps to pursue investigation into serious crimes under international law committed by all sides since 2002. 

This report describes trends in human rights abuses by state security and militia forces and by rebel forces, and examines the human rights and humanitarian consequences of the “no war no peace” stalemate.  It is based on interviews in Côte d’Ivoire in September-October 2005 with officials from the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), members of other U.N. agencies, the rebel leadership, local government officials and militia leaders, representatives from local and international nongovernmental organizations, journalists, diplomats and military attachés, representatives of the major political parties, and victims and eyewitnesses of human rights violations.

index  |  next>>December 2005