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Who Will Pay for Violence in Ivory Coast?

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(Dakar) - Does this sound familiar? An election in Ivory Coast meant to unite a divided country instead ignites pre-existing tensions, leading to rampant human rights abuses.

Security and militia forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo engage in abductions, disappearances and extrajudicial executions as supporters of opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara protest, at times violently, what they perceive to be an unjust grab for power.

While this may read like recent weeks' headlines, it also describes the aftermath of Ivory Coast's disputed 2000 elections. Indeed, 10 years later, many of the same actors are still in the picture. In between these two violence-marred elections, the people of Ivory Coast have suffered a short civil war and seven years of "no peace, no war."

During this time, government forces and rebels in control of the northern half of the country inflicted abuses against perceived supporters of the other side. Human Rights Watch documented massacres, extrajudicial executions, the recruitment of child soldiers and widespread sexual violence committed by both sides.

This violence is hardly inevitable. Most Ivorians are fed up with the decade-long division of their country. They are tired of bloodshed. They have seen their livelihoods crumble as their country, a former economic powerhouse in West Africa, has collapsed.

But Ivorians are likely to remain trapped in the current conflicts so long as the country's leaders and security forces operate with impunity, and the international community does not insist on justice for major human rights crimes.

After the 2000 elections, investigations by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and others found a post-election death toll of 200, with hundreds more seriously wounded, and scores tortured - the vast majority actual or perceived supporters of Ouattara. A mass grave on the outskirts of the financial capital, Abidjan, contained 57 bodies - most massacred while in detention.

Despite extensive evidence of these abuses, no one was brought to justice for the crimes. The captain at the detention camp where the executions occurred was even promoted.

Initial international demands for prosecutions diminished and ongoing abuses were met with ever-softer calls for justice. The U.N. Security Council, for example, has still not made public the findings of a 2004 U.N. Commission of Inquiry that investigated serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law and prepared a list of actors deemed most responsible for crimes committed during the civil war and its aftermath.

Security Council resolutions have long called for sanctions against those who threatened peace and security in Ivory Coast, but only three individuals were subject to them, largely for inciting attacks on U.N. personnel and foreigners.

The message sent by both national and international inaction has been clear: Those who commit or direct violence for political gain have nothing to fear.

As a consequence, the rule of law has quickly disintegrated and today "justice" is often meted out through the power of the gun, with politically motivated violence and forced disappearances used to silence opponents during times of crisis and controversy.

The November presidential election has brought new violence to Ivory Coast as Gbagbo has refused to accept the results of a vote in which, nearly the entire international community agrees, Ouattara was elected president. Over the past several weeks, pro-Gbagbo forces have abducted perceived political opponents from their homes in Abidjan; many remain missing, and the U.N. has put the death toll at almost 200.

Human Rights Watch has also documented abuses in the northern half of the country against Gbagbo supporters who, because of intimidation and some violence by forces supporting Ouattara, have fled to neighboring Liberia.

What can the international community do now to affect the outcome in Ivory Coast?

President Obama and leaders from the African Union and the European Union have made repeated efforts to break the impasse. These have included discussions of a "soft landing" for Gbagbo, in which he would take on an international role.

While the determination to end the stalemate is to be applauded, Ivory Coast's history shows that this approach must not be taken at the expense of accountability.

In recent weeks, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, have affirmed that human rights violations committed in the post-election period must be punished, calls echoed by the Security Council and major governments.

Perhaps most importantly, the ECOWAS Commission, a regional body of African states, has warned "all those responsible that they will face international trial for human rights violations at the earliest opportunity."

These words must be followed by determined action this time around. Security forces and others who commit human rights abuses must know that they can and will be held to account for heinous acts. Political leaders must understand that violence is no way to cling to power. The Ivory Coast will only emerge from its recent bloody history if these lessons are learned.

Matt Wells is a researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

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