We are writing to you in advance of your meetings in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire as part of your upcoming four-nation West African tour. Human Rights Watch welcomes the significant work done by the human rights and rule of law sections within the United Nations peacekeeping missions in both Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, particularly with respect to the monitoring of and reporting on persistent human rights abuses. We write today to urge you to use your meetings with Liberian and Ivorian government officials, UN mission representatives, and members of civil society to address a few key issues, especially related to justice for past crimes, which Human Rights Watch believes are vital to restoration of respect for human rights and the rule of law, and in turn a durable peace in both countries.
Accountability for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity: As you are well aware, Liberia's two armed conflicts (1989-1996 and 1999-2003) were characterized by the commission of widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian law. The gravity of these abuses-massacres, mutilations, sexual violence, the recruitment and use of children as soldiers-have been tragically illuminated during the ongoing public hearings of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
While the TRC-empowered to recommend for prosecution the most serious offenders-has made significant progress chronicling a record of abuses, there appears to be no national strategy and little discussion by Liberian or international actors for holding perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to account. Human Rights Watch believes that the many victims of these unspeakable crimes deserve justice for what they have suffered, and that prosecutions of the most serious crimes committed would go a long way towards consolidating and firmly anchoring respect for the rule of law in Liberia.
During your discussions with representatives of Liberia's government and civil society we therefore urge you to emphasize the importance of accountability for past human rights violations, and also to encourage them to develop a strategy for prosecuting those allegedly responsible for the most egregious crimes. Given the persistent weaknesses in the Liberian justice system, international support is very likely to be necessary to ensuring justice for these crimes.
Establishment of an Independent National Human Rights Commission: Five years ago, the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (August 2003) mandated the creation of an Independent National Human Rights Commission charged with drawing up a national human rights action plan. While some steps have been taken towards the creation of a Commission in the intervening years, and we understand that a shortlist of commissioners has been submitted to the president, given the amount of time that has elapsed, we believe that prompt establishment of a commission will require proactive interest from the international community. We therefore urge you to use your good offices to urge the government to ensure that this commission is established without delay, and that once established, it receives adequate funding to fulfill its mandate.
Impunity for Past and Ongoing Human Rights Abuses: Côte d'Ivoire is characterized today by an intense focus on the part of nearly all actors with a stake in the Ivorian crisis-at both the international and local levels-on the process leading towards upcoming presidential elections, currently scheduled for November of this year. While Human Rights Watch salutes the progress that has been made in implementing the Ouagadougou Agreement and the role the United Nations has played therein, we are concerned that in its narrow focus on elections, the international community risks losing sight of the need to resolve issues of impunity for human rights violations that are critical not only to calm during the upcoming elections themselves, but also to long-term prospects for peace and stability.
Despite the relative decrease in political tensions since the signing of the Ouagadougou Agreement, impunity for past and ongoing violations of human rights persists. Should political tensions rise in the lead-up to elections, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the prevailing climate of impunity could facilitate a dramatic resurgence of human rights abuses, which in turn could threaten the integrity of the elections themselves. It is therefore imperative that the international community begin to work with the government of Côte d'Ivoire in advance of the elections to tackle issues arising from impunity and the need for justice. There are at least three areas where the United Nations could play a critical role:
First, the United Nations, through the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (ONUCI), should take immediate steps to help initiate, through existing human rights education, media, and outreach programs, public dialogue regarding justice for serious crimes that have been committed. Currently, there is almost no discussion on this subject in Côte d'Ivoire. Human Rights Watch is of the view that, given its importance to the nation's future, national dialogue on this subject needs to occur before the elections, not after the fact.
Second, to date the United Nations Security Council has yet to make public or discuss the findings of a Commission of Inquiry report into serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law since September 2002, which was handed to the UN secretary-general in November 2004. The failure to so much as discuss the findings of the report, much less act upon them, sends the wrong signal to abusers. Human Rights Watch believes that, at a minimum, official publication of this report could be used to help generate much needed national dialogue on the need for transitional justice.
Third, Ivoirian authorities have yet to facilitate a mission by the International Criminal Court's (ICC) Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to assess a possible investigation into crimes committed in Côte d'Ivoire. This is despite having made an ad hoc declaration in 2003 giving the ICC authority to investigate and prosecute crimes in Côte d'Ivoire even though the state has not ratified the Rome Statute. An ICC mission to Côte d'Ivoire would allow the court to assess a possible investigation, but also to send a strong signal that serious crimes will not be tolerated. Such a signal would be particularly significant in advance of the elections. Human Rights Watch therefore urges you to raise the importance of Ivoirian authorities enabling the ICC OTP's mission to take place promptly.
The Security Council has unequivocally rejected impunity for serious crimes like those committed in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire. As you noted in your remarks to the Sixth Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute, peace and justice do indeed go "hand in hand." As such, Human Rights Watch hopes you will maximize the opportunity presented by your meetings next week to not only discuss the role justice plays in consolidating the still fragile peace and stability in both countries, but also to take meaningful and concrete steps to ensure that this commitment to victims of horrific atrocities and to the consolidation of peace moves from rhetoric to action. In the spirit of openness we will be copying this letter to members of the UN Missions in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, and releasing a copy on our website on April 21, 2008.
Director, Africa Division
Director, United Nations Advocacy
Ellen Margrethe Løj, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Coordinator of United Nations Operations in Liberia
Choi Young-Jin, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Côte d'Ivoire