(New York, November 27, 2003) Pro-government militias in Côte d’Ivoire are committing serious abuses against civilians, including killings and torture, Human Rights Watch said today. The Ivorian government and international peacekeeping forces must take steps to control the rise of these militias, which operate with impunity.
“The proliferation of militia groups is a very dangerous consequence of the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, particularly in the currently volatile situation,” said Peter Takirambudde, director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “Unfortunately, the government has not acted to stem this trend. Instead, these groups continue to get away with murder.”
The reports received by Human Rights Watch indicate that in the west and southwest of the country these government-supported militias have harassed and assaulted peasant farmers, many of whom are migrants from other West African countries, including Burkina Faso. Most of the militia members are Bété—the same ethnic group of the Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo—or are from groups related to the Bété. Over the past 10 months, thousands of farmers who had migrated from Burkina Faso have been forced from their homes around Toulepleu, in western Côte d’Ivoire. In late October, several hundred West African immigrants and Ivorians of the Baoulé ethnic group were chased off their lands around Gagnoa, in southern Côte d’Ivoire, reportedly by groups of Bété youths. Militia groups supporting the government also remain active in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan.
Pro-government militia groups, known as the “Young Patriots” (Jeunes Patriotes), have proliferated in Côte d’Ivoire over the past 14 months. Membership is believed to number in the thousands, although precise figures are unknown. Several of the leaders of the umbrella group—the Group of Patriots for Peace (Groupement des Patriotes pour la Paix, or GPP)—are ex-student leaders from a national university students association, the Student and School Federation of Côte d’Ivoire (Fédération Estudiantine et Scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire, or FESCI). They appear to have built up membership from the student network and the youth wings of political parties, particularly the Ivorian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien, or FPI), the ruling party. Student activists have also played a prominent role in the rebel movement and within other major political parties.
Several of the militia units—known by names like the Bees, the Gazelles, the Ninjas and the Panthers—have reportedly received support in their training exercises from members of the national armed forces. There are also credible allegations that some of the militia members, particularly those of Bété ethnicity, have been armed by government forces. As recently as October, militia members attacked water and electricity companies in Abidjan, allegedly for providing services to the rebel-held northern part of the country. In late October, they attacked newspaper distributors and kiosks selling newspapers linked to opposition parties, temporarily shutting down press circulation.
Since the end of the conflict in July, and as recently as this month, Human Rights Watch has continued to receive reports of torture, arbitrary detentions and “disappearances” perpetrated by members of the state security forces in Abidjan.
In northern Côte d’Ivoire, controlled by the rebel New Forces (Forces Nouvelles), in recent months there has been an upsurge in reported incidents of assault, rape and looting allegedly carried out by undisciplined armed elements linked to the rebels. Many members of the New Forces have not been paid since the war was officially declared over.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to launch an inquiry into the role of militias in abuses against civilians and the role of the security forces in supporting or failing to halt the militias’ activities. President Gbagbo should take steps to ensure that no party or government funding is directed towards such militias, which should immediately be disbanded. The government should act to bring to justice individuals suspected of involvement in these abuses.
“The conflict in Côte d’Ivoire is partly a product of longstanding impunity in the country. Solving this political impasse requires not only serious engagement by the international community but also a real commitment from all the opposing groups to end abuses,” said Takirambudde.
The United Nations Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (MINUCI) should also speed up the countrywide deployment of human rights officers so that they can monitor and conduct their own investigations into these abuses. In addition, Human Rights Watch urged France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to ensure protection of civilians through extensive deployment of their peacekeeping forces in areas of concern.
Côte d’Ivoire’s nine-month civil war began with a rebel uprising in September 2002, and was officially declared over in July. But the implementation of the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement, which called for a transitional government and elections in 2005, has all but broken down. In September, the rebel New Forces walked out of the government of national reconciliation, citing the government’s failure to implement the agreement in good faith.
Urban and rural militias played an increasingly active role following the outbreak of hostilities in the civil war: civilian militias manned checkpoints on main roads in government-controlled areas, checked civilian identification, and generally took on tasks usually carried out by uniformed government security forces. In Duékoué, in the west of the country, Human Rights Watch documented executions and harassment of civilians in April by civilian militias acting with full impunity and, in some cases, with the collaboration of state security forces. In Abidjan, militia activity brought the town to a standstill during the militias’ demonstrations against the peace accords in January. During those demonstrations, pro-government militias attacked French businesses and institutions with no response from the state security forces.
While a ceasefire, monitored by 5,300 peacekeepers from France and ECOWAS, is still holding, there are worrying signs that the two sides are again preparing for war. Militias would likely play a large part in any return to violence. ECOWAS-sponsored talks aimed at breaking the impasse were held earlier this month, but failed to bring the rebels back into the government of national reconciliation. At present, the country remains split in two, with the rebel forces controlling the northern part and the government holding the south.
Crucial provisions in the January peace accords provided for a national human rights commission and an international inquiry into abuses committed during the conflict. To date, neither the commission nor the inquiry has materialized. Other key provisions of the peace agreement—including those on disarmament, land reform and nationality law —remain unfulfilled.
Impunity by government security forces remains a fundamental concern in Côte d’Ivoire and is both a cause and a result of the disintegration of the rule of law over the past four years.
Since 2000, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have documented a persistent pattern of serious human rights violations committed by state security forces alone or in complicity with civilian militias, none of which have been seriously investigated or prosecuted by the Ivorian government. During the violence surrounding the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2000, there were scores of extrajudicial executions as well as numerous disappearances, cases of sexual violence, and hundreds of cases of torture committed by government forces, often in collaboration with youth supporters of the ruling party, the Ivorian Popular Front.
Human Rights Watch documented similar patterns of abuses against northern Ivorians, foreigners and suspected rebel sympathizers since the outbreak of the internal conflict on September 19, 2002. These violations included systematic and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, summary executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, “disappearances”, torture, rape, pillage, corporal punishment and other violent acts against civilians.