Two weekends ago, spurred on by broadcasts over state radio, pro-government militias in Ivory Coast gathered their machetes and set off to attack French civilians in the commercial capital, Abidjan. France responded decisively to the militias, first by deploying reinforcement soldiers to protect the some 10,000 French citizens living in the country, and then by organizing their evacuation.
This continuing evacuation of thousand of French and other Western civilians has been the focus of Western concern over the past week, but while their plight deserves sympathy, they are far from the only ones at risk. Once they have left, what will happen if the same militias once again turn their rage toward the northerners, Muslims and West African immigrants - whom they see as supporters of the country's northern-based rebellion - or the political opposition? If this happens, the United Nations peacekeeping force in place since April must act with equal resolve to protect the lives of these vulnerable groups that have often been targeted in the past.
West of Abidjan, in the county's cacao-growing region, the specter of ethnic violence already looms large. Last week in the town of Gagnoa, a militia comprised of youth from President Laurent Gbagbo's Beté tribe launched an attack on the town's "Dioulas" - a catch-all term for northerners, Muslims and West African immigrants in Ivory Coast. As they pillaged businesses in town, the militia reportedly killed five people.
"We are really afraid. Youths have been outside since 10 p.m. They are looking for Dioulas," a frightened Gagnoa resident told Radio France International."Can you hear them knocking at the door? We do not know what to do." One Ivoirian human rights activist told me, "If it starts, it will start in the countryside first, far away from any UN peacekeepers or French soldiers."
After France retaliated for the deaths of nine of its soldiers by destroying Ivory Coast's air force on Nov. 6, state radio led the call to arms eliciting a massive mobilization of the youth militias that converged on Abidjan. High-level Ivorian officials - including the leader of the ruling Ivorian Popular Front, the president's spokesman and the National Assembly president - incited violence by saying on the radio that France intended to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo.
Since Gbagbo took office in 2000, the militias, as well as the state security forces, have become partisan supporters of the ruling party. The government has increasingly relied on these militias for both law enforcement and, after a coup attempt in 2002, to combat the rebellion.
Despite two internationally brokered peace accords, members of the militias - the largest of which is called the Young Patriots - have reportedly been undergoing military training in Abidjan in recent months. These militias have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. In March, they took part in a violent crackdown against opposition supporters during a demonstration in Abidjan, in which at least 120 demonstrators were killed. On Nov. 4, they attacked the hotel housing government ministers representing the opposition New Force, and ransacked and burned the offices of at least two opposition newspapers.
The Ivoirian government's failure to hold the militias and security forces accountable for these abuses has only strengthened their impunity in Abidjan and the rural areas. On Nov. 7, Gbagbo appealed to the militias to return home. But the next morning, his political pundits were back on state radio and the boys were back on the streets. If Gbagbo won't control the militias, the UN peacekeepers must step in to protect civilians.
The peacekeepers need to make their presence felt in areas populated by these vulnerable groups, most urgently in the ethnically mixed towns of the western cacao belt. They must also actively monitor state radio for content likely to incite violence or hostility against individuals or clearly defined groups of people. And they need be prepared to silence broadcasts that incite or provide directions for violence.
The UN Security Council is considering a resolution on Ivory Coast. Among its provisions is a clause that requires "the Ivoirian authorities to end all radio and TV broadcasts that incite hate, intolerance or violence." To head off the threat of ethnic violence, the international community needs to approve this measure and ensure that Ivory Coast complies. Charged under their mandate "to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence," the UN peacekeepers need to protect vulnerable civilians in Ivory Coast, just as the French have protected their own citizens there.