(New York) – As fighting renewed in Côte d’Ivoire on Thursday, Human Rights Watch called on all parties to refrain from targeting civilians and to respect international humanitarian law. According to their mandate, United Nations peacekeepers deployed in the country should protect civilians under imminent threat of violence.

On Thursday, Ivorian government aircraft launched a series of bombing raids on the main rebel-held cities of Bouaké and Korhogo, signaling an end to the ceasefire declared in January 2003 and the peace process initiated at the same time. Several civilians were reported killed and many wounded when a checkpoint manned by New Forces (Forces Nouvelles) troops came under aerial attack. Meanwhile in Abidjan, the commercial capital held by government forces, militant youth from a pro-government group known as the Young Patriots (Jeunes Patriotes) attacked unarmed U.N. personnel and burned two of their vehicles, attacked the hotel where government ministers representing the New Forces lived, and ransacked and burned the offices of at least two opposition newspapers.

“Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war and its ongoing political crisis have been characterized by shocking brutality. Civilians have often been attacked solely on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or nationality,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “If the government and rebels resume fighting, they must take all steps possible to limit harm to the civilian population.”

Human Rights Watch urged all parties to the Ivorian conflict—including the Ivorian military, gendarmes, police forces, pro-government militias and combatants from several rebel factions making up the New Forces—to distinguish at all times between combatants and the civilian population. They must not attack civilians including aid workers, medical personnel, U.N. personnel and members of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Captured combatants and civilians who find themselves under the authority of an adverse party must at all times be treated humanely, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion or nationality.

Under international humanitarian law, all parties to the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire are prohibited from launching indiscriminate attacks. Armed forces must take precautions to limit the danger of attacks to civilian populations. Military actions — including the use of helicopter gunships, mortars or artillery — should be guided by the principle of proportionality in that the attacker should refrain from launching an attack if the expected civilian casualties would outweigh the importance of the military target.

Moreover, the Ivorian government must ensure that militias used for military purposes are instructed in their obligations under the laws of war, or international humanitarian law. Since 2000, the government has increasingly relied on pro-government militias for both law enforcement and, since 2002, to combat the rebellion. In recent months, pro-government militia members have reportedly been undergoing military training in Abidjan.

Drawn mainly from youth supporters of the ruling party, the Ivorian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivorien, or FPI), the militias have served as a lightly veiled mechanism to intimidate and abuse members of the political opposition and those suspected of opposing the government by virtue of their religion, ethnicity or nationality. Most notably, the latter has included Muslims, northerners and West African immigrants mostly from Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Guinea.

“Pro-government militias have been responsible for serious human rights abuses in Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict,” said Takirambudde. “The Ivorian government’s failure to hold the militias accountable for these abuses has only strengthened the impunity of these groups in Abidjan and the rural areas.”

During the internal conflict from September 2002 through January 2003, and during the political impasse that has followed, Ivorian state security forces and other pro-government forces frequently and sometimes systematically executed, detained and attacked civilians from northern ethnic groups, Muslims and West African immigrants. Militia groups, tolerated if not encouraged by state security forces, have engaged in widespread targeting of the immigrant community, particularly agricultural workers from Burkina Faso living in villages in western Côte d’Ivoire. On their part, the New Forces have also attacked and killed civilians suspected of supporting the government or ruling political party.

Neither the Ivorian government nor the rebel leadership has taken concrete steps to investigate and hold accountable those most responsible for these crimes. Perpetrators have been emboldened by the current climate of impunity that allows grave abuses to go unpunished.

Background

Since the military coup of 1999, Côte d’Ivoire has descended from its position as a beacon of socioeconomic stability in Africa to being one of the continent’s most intransigent crises. The political and social climate is dangerously polarized and characterized by intolerance, xenophobia and suspicion. The 1999-2000 military junta, 2002-2003 civil war between the government and northern based rebels, and the political unrest and impasse that followed have been accompanied by a persistent, pernicious, and deadly disintegration of the rule of law. The issues at the heart of the Ivorian conflict — the exploitation of ethnicity for political gain, competition over land and natural resources, and corruption — continue unabated.

While the bombing raids on Thursday marked the first relapse into full-scale war since 2003, the country remains divided. The north and most of the west of the country remain under the control of the rebel forces while the government retains control of the south. Some 4,000 French troops monitor the ceasefire line.

The internal armed conflict officially ended in January 2003, after the signing of the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. The agreement provided for the formation of a Government of National Reconciliation, which was to oversee disarmament, transparent elections, and the implementation of political reforms such as changes to citizenship and land tenure laws. During 2003 the country made only limited progress towards implementing the provisions of the agreement. Despite the inclusion of both sides in the new government of reconciliation, representatives of the New Forces withdrew in September 2003 citing, among other reasons, President Gbagbo’s lack of good faith in implementing the agreement.

Fears that the impasse would lead to a fresh outbreak of violence led the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to organize a summit to jumpstart the peace process, which was held in July in Accra, Ghana. The summit resulted in the signing of the Accra III agreement which committed the government to adopt several key legal reforms by the end of August, including one on citizenship for West African immigrants, one which would define eligibility to contest presidential elections, and another which would change rights to land tenure. The agreement also set October 15 as the starting date for disarmament, and agreed that the process should include all paramilitary and militia groups. However, none of the key reforms had been passed by the Ivorian government, and the rebels refused to begin disarming by the agreed-upon date of October 15.