Your Excellency,

Human Rights Watch writes to apprise members of the Security Council of the deteriorating human rights situation in western Côte d'Ivoire, and to recommend actions that the Security Council should take to address the crisis. Unless immediate steps are taken to contain the conflict in the west of the country and the human rights abuses that have accompanied it, the fragile peace in Côte d'Ivoire may collapse and further threaten regional stability.

The situation in western Côte d'Ivoire requires the Security Council's attention due to the urgent need for protection of civilians as well as the cross-border character of the conflict. As described below, both government and rebel forces have introduced Liberian fighters into the fighting in western Côte d'Ivoire, and the conflict there increasingly is becoming an extension of the neighboring Liberian war.

Over the past two months, Human Rights Watch has gathered information from refugees and displaced civilians in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso who provide consistent and compelling descriptions of the severe human rights situation. It is clear that extensive abuses, including killings, rape, and systematic looting of civilian property, are taking place in areas where access is very limited, making independent documentation and verification very difficult. This underscores the critical need for further investigation of abuses in the west.

Background to the current fighting

The current area of concern stretches roughly between Toulepleu and Danane, on the Liberian border, east to Man and Guiglo.

On November 28, 2002, two new rebel groups - the Movement for Justice and Peace (Mouvement pour la Justice et la Paix, MJP) and the Ivoirian Popular Movement for the Great West (Mouvement Populaire Ivoirien du Grand Ouest, MPIGO) - emerged and captured Danane and Man. They then continued south to take Toulepleu and Bloléquin in early December. Since December 2002, the area has become the main theater of the Ivoirien conflict.

A ceasefire agreement was signed by the MJP and MPIGO rebel groups and the government on January 13, 2003. However, the agreement has been violated numerous times by both sides.

Until April 9, 2003, rebel forces controlled north of Toulepleu and government forces controlled Toulepleu town and the road west to Bloléquin. As of April 11, 2003, a government offensive was moving north and was reported to have captured Zouan-Hounien.

Abuses of civilians in western Côte d'Ivoire

Both the government and the rebel forces have been responsible for violations of international humanitarian law, including rape, attacks on civilians, systematic looting of civilian property and executions of suspected enemy sympathizers. At least two massacres have been reported in the area in March 2003, in Bangolo and Dah, with at least one hundred civilian deaths from the two incidents. According to civilians who fled these two locations, Liberians and Ivoiriens fighting for the government of Côte d'Ivoire were responsible for the killings in Bangolo, while rebel fighters were responsible for the killings in Dah. Human Rights Watch was not able to travel to these sites and further investigation is required.

Both the government and the rebel forces have also been responsible for reprisal killings, particularly when towns have changed hands. This was the case in Man in December 2002, when a loyalist counteroffensive captured the town and held it for approximately ten days, and in Toulepleu, which was captured by rebels in December 2002 and then re-taken by the government in January 2003. Reprisal killings by government forces have often been based on ethnic, national, or political affiliation, while rebel forces have targeted government officials or suspected government sympathizers. It is essential that both warring parties protect civilians and make every effort to minimize civilian casualties in any future offensives in the area.

Even where conflict on the ground has not targeted civilians, government helicopter gunships have been responsible for civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch has documented several incidents in which civilians have been the victims of indiscriminate attacks by helicopter gunships. A December 2002 attack on Mahapleu, for instance, resulted in at least nine civilian victims when a helicopter gunship fired into a crowd of civilians at the local market from a distance of sixty meters, a clear violation of international humanitarian law.

The government's renewed use of helicopter gunships in Bin-Houyé and Danane during the week of April 7, 2003, may be a cause for concern, although it is not yet clear whether these attacks were limited to military targets. It must be added that in several incidents, the rebel forces also bear responsibility for not clearly separating military targets from civilian sites. For example, the deployment of military forces near civilians led to civilian deaths in a helicopter attack on Vavua town in December 2002.

Thousands of Ivoirien and ECOWAS nationals have fled the western region via Liberia only to be refused entry at the Guinean border. The recent intensification of the Liberian war has trapped thousands of civilians who now must choose between two untenable options - remaining in Liberia amidst growing conflict or returning to western Côte d'Ivoire.

Liberian involvement with rebel forces in western Côte d'Ivoire

One of the alarming developments in the west has been the recruitment and use of Liberian fighters by both rebel and government forces. Some of these fighters have been implicated in serious human rights abuses in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Human Rights Watch interviewed civilians who fled Danane, Zouan-Hounien, and other towns and villages controlled by rebel groups in the past few months. According to these accounts, the western rebel forces contain Ivoirien, Sierra Leonean, and Liberian fighters. However, Liberians constitute the largest proportion of the western rebel forces. Victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch consistently stated that English-speaking Liberians were responsible for systematic looting of civilian property - regardless of the ethnicity of their victims - accompanied by assault and, in some cases, the rape of women and girls.

Credible sources have stated that among the Sierra Leoneans fighting alongside the rebels are some former RUF fighters, including Sam Bockarie ("Mosquito"), who was recently indicted by the Sierra Leone Special Court.

Liberian involvement with government forces in western Côte d'Ivoire

Several hundred of the Liberians fighting alongside the government forces are former refugees who have either been recruited or felt compelled to join the government forces in order to demonstrate their loyalty in the face of increased anti-Liberian feeling in Côte d'Ivoire.

According to civilians who fled Toulepleu, Bloléquin and other villages under the control of government forces, the majority of the armed forces in these locations are Liberians, although there are also some local Ivoiriens among the fighters. Human Rights Watch documented cases of systematic looting of property and rape of civilians in this area.

Human Rights Watch also gathered accounts of children among the Liberian fighters on both sides, many of whom are as young as nine and according to one description, "cannot even control the weight of their guns."

While both the government and rebel forces bear responsibility for introducing Liberian combatants into the Ivoirien conflict, it is apparent that neither side exerts full control over their Liberian fighters, and that western Côte d'Ivoire has become an extension of the neighboring Liberian war.

The abuses are manipulated by both the government of Côte d'Ivoire and the rebel groups through political rhetoric and local media in order to further their respective political agendas. This trend threatens to undermine the recent steps to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Recommendations

The gravity of the situation in western Côte d'Ivoire demands Security Council action. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Security Council take the following steps:

  • Immediately call on all parties to the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire to respect human rights and international humanitarian law regarding treatment of civilians and other non-combatants, and to hold accountable members of their forces responsible for abuses;
  • Establish a human rights monitoring mission in Côte d'Ivoire, with appropriate human, financial and technical resources, which reports to the Security Council. The monitoring mission should have the mandate to report on violations of human rights and humanitarian law by all sides to the conflict, including Liberian combatants, and should make recommendations about mechanisms for holding perpetrators accountable. The monitoring mission should have as extensive a field presence as possible, including in Daloa, Bouaké, San Pedro, and, security permitting, Man. The mission's reports should be made public;
  • Call on all states in the region - including Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, and Zambia - to commit to returning any individuals indicted by the Special Court of Sierra Leone who flee into their territories, to assist in their apprehension, and to otherwise cooperate with the Special Court;
  • Call on all neighboring states, in particular Guinea, to keep borders open to all civilians fleeing the conflict in western Côte d'Ivoire, including nationals of ECOWAS countries attempting to enter via Liberia;
  • Urge ECOWAS forces together with French forces supporting them, to ensure that civilians are protected from physical violence in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1464 (2003).

Human Rights Watch is ready to assist you with further information should you require it. Thank you for your kind consideration.

Sincerely,

Joanna Weschler
U.N. Representative

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director
Africa Division