(New York) — State security forces in Côte d’Ivoire must be held accountable for use of excessive force in responding to yesterday’s opposition march in the capital Abidjan, Human Rights Watch said today. The Ivorian government should call for an independent investigation of the violence.
At least 25 people were killed and 45 were wounded in Abidjan yesterday during a protest march organized by an alliance of leading Ivorian opposition parties and former rebel forces to protest the government’s lack of progress in implementing the January 2003 peace accords.
Shortly after the march was announced, President Laurent Gbagbo banned all demonstrations in the capital and mobilized the military to deploy forces throughout the city, citing fears that opposition groups were “plotting a coup.” Commanders of the armed forces decreed that the area around the presidential palace would be considered a “red zone” in which demonstrators would be considered “enemy fighters and treated as such without warning.”
“Equating civilian demonstrators with enemy combatants is totally unacceptable,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “The state security forces had a duty to minimize the violence and act with restraint, but they have clearly failed to respect this obligation.”
It was widely anticipated that the march could result in violence given the continuing tension in the country and the slow implementation of the peace accords since the internal conflict ended in July 2003.
The worst violence apparently took place in the Abidjan districts of Abobo, Port-Bouet, Youpougon, Adjamé, and Koumassi. In Abobo, an area inhabited by many supporters of the opposition parties, members of the government’s anti-riot squad apparently fired into a group of unarmed protestors, killing four people and injuring an unknown number. In a separate incident, at least two police officers were reportedly killed by protesters in the Abobo neighborhood of Abidjan.
Credible sources reported that youth supporters of President Gbagbo’s Popular Ivorian Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien, FPI), popularly known as the Young Patriots, were actively participating in the violence in the district and assaulted and killed at least one person with machetes. In another district, Cocody, police were seen shooting at individuals as they were running away. At least 24 people were wounded in the Port-Bouet and Adjamé neighborhoods, but the death toll in those locations remains unclear.
“The Ivorian government should call for and cooperate with an independent investigation and bring all those responsible for the violence to justice, including civilian supporters on all sides,” Takirambudde said.
Human Rights Watch also received reports that dozens of people were rounded up and arrested by state security forces today and in the days preceding the march. These round-ups occurred in the poorer neighborhoods inhabited primarily by West African immigrants and northern Ivorians, often perceived as supporters of the Rally of Republicans (Rassemblement des Républicains, RDR) opposition party.
The Ivorian security forces must abide by international standards and use restraint in any further protests, Human Rights Watch said. The U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and preservation of human life respected.
The former rebel groups and the RDR withdrew from the coalition government following the bloodshed yesterday, but pledged to continue stage another protest march on Friday.