(New York) - Leading government officials in Côte d'Ivoire have incited a violent xenophobia that is threatening to destabilize the country, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today.

The World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, which begins in Durban on August 31, should condemn the Ivorian leaders who have promoted intolerance based on ethnic and religious differences.

The 70-page report, "The New Racism: The Political Manipulation of Ethnicity in Côte d'Ivoire," describes atrocities committed during presidential and parliamentary elections in October and December 2000, and is based on extensive interviews of victims and witnesses in Abidjan in late 2000 and early 2001. The report documents more than 200 killings, as well as torture, rape, and arbitrary detention. The political and social climate remains volatile today as intolerance and xenophobia continue to shape daily life.

"Africans have often been the victims of racism, but they can also be its perpetrators," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "In Côte d'Ivoire we see the kind of intolerance and bigotry that the Racism Conference is designed to address. The Ivorian leaders and security forces responsible for these atrocities must be widely condemned, and brought to justice."

The election violence began with security forces targeting civilians on the basis of these political affiliations. Following Gbagbo's victory, security forces began targeting civilians solely and explicitly on the basis of their religion, ethnic group, or national origin.

The overwhelming majority of victims come from the largely Muslim north of the country, or are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants to Côte d'Ivoire. About one-quarter of the population of Cote d'Ivoire was born abroad or is descended from immigrants. Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara and his party, the Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR), largely draw their support from these groups.

In an incident that was widely reported in October 2000, security forces massacred fifty-seven young men, who were then buried in a mass grave in a forest on the outskirts of Abidjan. The new Human Rights Watch report uncovers many more atrocities committed by security forces during the electoral period. These include:

  • The gunning down of civilians in several smaller massacres;
  • The torture of hundreds of detainees held by police and gendarme; and
  • The disappearance of at least fifteen young men and the sexual abuse by gendarmes and police of numerous young women.

On August 3, 2001, following a flawed trial, a military tribunal in Abidjan acquitted the eight gendarmes accused of the October 2000 massacre on the grounds of "lack of evidence." The prosecutor says he will appeal the verdict and take the case to a civilian court where survivors might be more willing to testify. No other members of the security forces alleged to be responsible for abuses have been charged. Instead, President Gbagbo announced that a national "Forum of Reconciliation" would take place on September 7, 2000.

International condemnation of the killings of the fifty-seven young men has largely focused on pursuing justice in this case alone, while there has been relatively little international attention to pursuing justice in the scores of other atrocities documented in the report.

Since 1995, when then-President Henri Bédié first invoked a conception of "Ivorité," or "Ivorian-ness," there have been several outbreaks of violence against people of foreign descent.

Military ruler General Guei, who briefly took power following a coup in late 1999, had introduced a constitutional amendment that required any presidential candidate to have both parents born in Côte d'Ivoire. The amendment was transparently designed to exclude Ouattara, the leader of the strongest opposition party. Just before the presidential elections, a controversial Supreme Court decision disqualified fourteen of the nineteen candidates on citizenship grounds, including Ouattara.

Laurent Gbagbo, who claimed victory in the presidential elections when Guei fled the country in the midst of protests at his attempts to rig the result, used the same standard of parental citizenship to ensure that Ouattara was once again not allowed to run during the December parliamentary elections.

"The exploitation of ethnic divisions for political gain is all too familiar in Africa," said Takirambudde. "When politicians incite hatred to further their own careers, the victims are the people they should be serving. Ivorian leaders should step back from this course now, before it is too late."

Human Rights Watch urged President Gbagbo to direct the justice ministry to promptly investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for these serious violations of human rights. Human Rights Watch further called on President Gbagbo to ensure that his tenure is characterized by the rule of law - and not by military impunity.

Selected Testimonies

An elderly Malian man, apparently detained because he was wearing a Muslim robe, was one of fourteen men gunned down in October 2000. He recounted the incident of which he claims to be the only survivor. His account was verified by several others living within view of where the killings took place:

On Thursday October 26, at around 2:00 p.m. I left my house to do an errand. On my way I saw the gendarmes were all around. A minute later they saw me and ordered me to come to them. They said they were going to kill me because I'm a Dioula, because I'm a Muslim. I was wearing my bobo [robe] and slippers so they knew I was a Muslim. After hearing that I took off running across the railway line but was unfortunately caught by another gendarme. I begged them to forgive me - I shouldn't really have to ask forgiveness for anything but I figured my life was more important than my pride.

The gendarme who'd caught me told me to lie down on the railway and then the others said, no, I should join another group of prisoners nearby. As I was led to this place I saw there were thirteen prisoners; even though I'm old my mind is sharp and I took time to count. The gendarmes were all around and they kept pointing their guns at us. When I arrived they told me to take off my bobo and lay down on the grass with the others.

While lying there the gendarmes asked our nationality, which is how I came to know there was also one Burkinabé and one Mauritanian among us. One of them said, "all of you are RDR, all of you are Dioula." They beat us for about thirty minutes. They kicked and beat us with the thick iron buckles of their red belts. They were especially tough on the younger men but left me alone because I'm old. We were asking pardon and telling them we were sorry. One gendarme came by and said, "Haven't you killed these people yet?"

A 17-year old young woman, an RDR supporter, who was gang-raped by ten gendarmes and several militant FPI youths, said:

The gendarmes raped us right there in the courtyard on the grass and dirt. They told us to lie down and said, "and you say you want a Burkinabé president; just wait and see what we do to you." First one raped me and then when I tried to get up another would push me down and get on top of me. About ten gendarmes raped me. A few of them also made me take their penises in my mouth. When they were finished they called the youth from FPI and asked, "who wants to make love with them?" and then several of them came and raped us as well. Maybe even ten of them. I don't remember. It all became a blur. At one point one of the youths put sand in my sex.

They really mistreated the wife of the caretaker. She screamed that she was not in the march but they kept saying they didn't care. One of the gendarmes told the caretaker to get a machete and cut off a small branch from a banana tree. Then they told her to put the branch inside her sex. They forced her poor husband to watch. Some of the gendarmes doing the raping had two "V"s [sergeant] and others had two bars [first lieutenant].