Background Briefing

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The Armed Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire and Applicable International Law

Under international humanitarian law (the laws of war), the armed conflict between the government of Côte d’Ivoire and rebel forces is considered a non-international or internal armed conflict.  The participation of French and U.N. forces on the ground “internationalizes” this internal armed conflict.  Despite the Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement of 2003 and the declaration of a “final” cessation of hostilities on April 6, 2005, international humanitarian law remains applicable because of the unstable military situation.

All parties to the conflict are bound by the applicable international humanitarian law.  The applicable law includes article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the 1977 Second Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol II),86 which Cote d’Ivoire ratified in 1989, and customary international humanitarian law.87 The objective of these standards, which apply during a ceasefire as well during active hostilities, is to minimize human suffering and protect civilians and other noncombatants. 

Common article 3 covers armed conflicts “not of an international character,” and expressly binds all parties, including rebel forces, even though they do not have the legal capacity to sign the Geneva Conventions. Protocol II applies when opposing forces in an internal armed conflict are under a responsible command, exercise enough control over territory to mount sustained and coordinated military operations, and have the capacity to implement Protocol II.  Such circumstances currently exist in Côte d’Ivoire. 

With regard to civilians and captured combatants, both government and rebel forces are prohibited from using violence to life and person, in particular murder, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture. The taking of hostages is forbidden, as is humiliating and degrading treatment. No party to the conflict may pass sentences or carry out executions without previous judgment by a regularly constituted court that has afforded the defendant all judicial guarantees.

Protocol II provides fundamental guarantees for the humane treatment and protection of civilians and other non-combatants in addition to what is found in common article 3.  Expressly prohibited are rape and other forms of indecent assault, collective punishments, pillage, and threats to commit such acts.88

Customary international humanitarian law provides a more encompassing list of protections for civilians in internal armed conflicts. In addition to the above prohibitions, customary international law prohibits arbitrary deprivation of liberty,89 enforced disappearance,90 and the destruction or seizure of the property of an adversary unless required by imperative military necessity.91

Of special relevance to the current situation in Côte d’Ivoire are the requirements Protocol II imposes on all sides to an internal armed conflict to protect the civilian population.  The civilian population shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations.  Civilians shall not be the object of attack, and any acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.92  All parties must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, and the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief workers must be ensured.93  Should displacements of the civilian population be ordered for security or imperative military reasons, “all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition.”94  Parties, including rebel forces, are required to ensure that children are “provided with the care and aid they require.”  In particular children shall receive an education and be protected from recruitment into the armed forces.95  Additionally, the elderly, disabled, and infirm affected by armed conflict are entitled to special respect and protection.96

International human rights law also applies during periods of armed conflict.  Côte d’Ivoire is a party to the main human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention against Torture, among others.

[86] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non- International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II).

[87] An authoritative study of customary international humanitarian law is the two-volume ICRC Customary International Humanitarian Law (2005). Important sources of customary international humanitarian law are the First and Second Additional Protocols of 1977 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (respectively Protocol I and Protocol II). Protocol I applies to international armed conflicts, but many provisions on the methods and means of warfare are recognized as reflective of customary law during internal armed conflicts. Protocol II applies during internal armed conflicts and virtually all of its provisions are considered indicative of customary law. See generally Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), of 8 June 1977, and Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non- International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), of 8 June 1977.

[88] Protocol II, art. 4.

[89] ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 99. Arbitrary deprivation of liberty violates the right to humane treatment under common article 3 to the Geneva Conventions.

[90] ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 98.

[91] ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 50, citing Rome Statute of the ICC, article 8(2)(e)(xii).

[92] Protocol II, art. 13.

[93] Protocol II, art. 18.

[94] Protocol II, art. 17.

[95] Protocol II,  art. 4(3).

[96] ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 138, citing provisions of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>December 2005