President Alassane Ouattara takes the oath of office at the presidential palace in Abidjan on May 6, 2011. After nearly six months of post-election violence in which armed forces on both sides committed grave crimes under international law, Ouattara's long-awaited inauguration will be held on May 21.

© 2011 Reuters

(Abidjan) - Alassane Ouattara should act promptly to make sure that those responsible for grave crimes in  Côte  d'Ivoire over the past dozen years are credibly brought to account, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to him. Ouattara is to be inaugurated as president on May 21, 2011.  

Human Rights Watch also called on Ouattara to take urgent steps to address the deepening divisions along communal lines through a credible truth-telling mechanism, to build a professional and independent judiciary, and to ensure discipline within the security forces.

"President Ouattara will be sworn in as head of a deeply fractured nation still reeling from the horrors of recent months." said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "He should waste no time in moving Côte d'Ivoire out of this dark period through justice that is blind to political affiliation or rank."

Ouattara's inauguration comes nearly six months after the presidential runoff sparked violence, when the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept internationally recognized results that Ouattara had won. Human rights abuses by armed forces on both sides during the post-election period have claimed between 2,000 and 3,000 lives according to the United Nations, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and inflamed ethnic and political tensions throughout the country.

From December 2010 through May 2011, Human Rights Watch interviewed hundreds of victims and witnesses to egregious violations on both sides. These included massacres, enforced disappearances, killings and sexual violence against victims targeted for their perceived political support or ethnicity, the widespread recruitment of militias and mercenaries, and the indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry against civilians.

The majority of abuses during the first three months were by forces under Gbagbo's control and militia groups long loyal to him and probably amounted to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch found. As the Republican Forces, under the overall command of Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, swept through the country toward Abidjan during their March offensive, however, armed forces on both sides terrorized civilian populations perceived to support the rival candidate. Human Rights Watch documented war crimes, including widespread sexual violence and killings against real or perceived Gbagbo supporters in the country's far west, by members of the Republican Forces. Numerous other war crimes, including extrajudicial executions of detained combatants, killings of civilians, and sexual violence, were carried out by both sides during the final battle for Abidjan and in the days and weeks after the arrest on April 11 of Gbagbo and many of his closest allies.

Accountability for Serious Crimes
On April 13, Ouattara promised credible and impartial investigations into serious crimes in violation of international law committed by both sides during the post-election crisis and asked for the International Criminal Court's assistance with prosecutions. The public commitment to justice was an important step, but mixed messages from other government officials regarding accountability cause concern, Human Rights Watch said.

Côte d'Ivoire has experienced widespread violence and human rights abuses since 2000, when similar election violence left hundreds dead. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and other organizations also documented war crimes during the country's armed conflict in 2002 and 2003 and its aftermath. No one was credibly prosecuted for crimes during this period, and many of the same people are implicated as responsible for human rights abuses in the present crisis.

In its letter, Human Rights Watch urged Ouattara to ask the UN Security Council to publish a 2004 Commission of Inquiry report about crimes during the earlier conflict. A report on the post-election violence is expected to be published in June by a commission of inquiry created by the UN Human Rights Council. Together, the reports would shed light on many of the worst atrocities from the last decade.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Ouattara government to assist the International Criminal Court if it opens a formal investigation into crimes committed in Côte d'Ivoire.

But even if an ICC investigation takes place, to date the ICC prosecutor has only sought to prosecute a small number of those allegedly responsible for serious crimes in situations under investigation. Domestic prosecutions of serious crimes remain essential and would enhance local resonance for the justice process, Human Rights Watch said. The new government should ensure that domestic war crimes trials are consistent with international law and practice and should request assistance from donors toward that end.

Human Rights Watch also highlighted the need for the Ivorian government to treat suspects already in custody - Gbagbo, his political and military allies, and former militia leaders - fairly and humanely.

Ouattara has already taken steps to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appointing former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny as its head on May 2. Establishing a body to explore the issues behind the political and communal violence is a positive step, Human Rights Watch said. However, Ouattara should ensure that the body establishes its framework and carries out its work through an open and consultative process. The commission should not be treated as a substitute for prosecuting those implicated in serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Rebuilding the Rule of Law
Human Rights Watch also emphasized the importance of a return to the rule of law. The country has had more than a decade of corruption and abusive behavior by state authorities, with no state institutions in the north and far west since the 2002-2003 armed conflict divided control over the country. Human Rights Watch noted in particular the importance of building a professional and independent judiciary free of corruption as well as effective, rights-respecting police and military forces.

During the last decade, vigilante justice became the norm in many parts of Côte d'Ivoire, including by members of the violent pro-Gbagbo student group FESCI and some of the traditional northern hunters known as the Dozo. Human Rights Watch research prior to the post-election crisis found that security forces engaged in frequent criminal acts, including extortion, racketeering, and arbitrary detention, and that they often did not protect victims or investigate cases of sexual violence, banditry, and other pervasive problems.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to take disciplinary action against, and, if necessary, ensure the prosecution of the Republican Forces, police, and gendarmerie who engage in criminal behavior. Human Rights Watch also called on Ouattara to establish functioning legal institutions in the north and far west and deploy trained judicial and correction officials to those regions.

"The era in which an inaccessible and unfair judiciary left disputes to be solved by vigilantism and inter-communal conflict needs to end," Dufka said. "International donors should help the Ouattara government identify and address the failures of the rule of law that have in large part underscored the Ivorian crisis."