(Dakar) - The Ivorian government should swiftly carry out the main recommendations of a new United Nations report and ensure fair, credible justice for grave crimes committed after the 2010 presidential elections, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN Commission of Inquiry report was presented before the UN Human Rights Council on June 15, 2011.
The commission, established by the Human Rights Council in late March, looked into the six months of violence that followed former President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to step down after President Alassane Ouattara won the November 28 runoff vote. The commission documented serious violations of international law - including potential war crimes and crimes against humanity - by armed forces on both sides. Scores of women were raped during the post-election period, and the death toll is estimated to be at least 3,000.
"The UN Commission of Inquiry report highlights the political and ethnic killings and other heinous crimes by armed forces from both sides," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "If Côte d'Ivoire is to make the break from the past that President Ouattara has promised, impartial justice for the thousands of victims is essential."
Among its principal recommendations, the commission called on the Ouattara government to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; to address root causes of the conflict, including discrimination; and to help restore security by rapidly disarming thousands of men from groups that took part in the conflict who will not become part of the armed forces.
The commission in particular emphasized the need for impartial and transparent judicial proceedings against those who committed grave crimes, with assistance from the Human Rights Council, the UN, and international donors.
An annex to the commission's report identifies those most responsible for post-election crimes and recommends criminal investigations of these suspects. The commission has chosen to keep the list confidential. Human Rights Watch urged the commission either to publish the list within a specific time to contribute to efforts to provide truth and justice for victims or to explain why confidentiality is necessary.
"The Ouattara government needs to move beyond vague promises of accountability," Dufka said. "While President Ouattara has notably asked for the International Criminal Court's assistance, national trials will also be needed. The Ivorian government should promptly investigate crimes by both sides and ask for donors' assistance so it can hold fair, credible trials."
Human Rights Watch also called on the Human Rights Council and UN Security Council to take note of the commission's recommendation and publish immediately the 2004 UN Commission of Inquiry report on crimes during the civil war in 2002 and 2003. The report has been kept secret because of some domestic and international concerns at the time that its findings would derail peace negotiations.
Because justice was sidelined, however, many leaders on both sides of the political and military divide remained in power and are again implicated in grave crimes against civilians, Human Rights Watch said. Publication of the 2004 report, including the annex that identified those most responsible for grave violations, would shed needed light on those crimes and help ensure that Côte d'Ivoire ends the complete absence of credible justice over the last decade.
Human Rights Watch researchers undertook five research missions to document grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the post-election period. Researchers interviewed more than 500 victims and direct witnesses to the violence.
After the second round of elections, forces under Gbagbo's control and militia groups long loyal to him systematically targeted civilians from northern Côte d'Ivoire and neighboring West African countries for their perceived support for Ouattara. Human Rights Watch documented killings, enforced disappearances, and rape by pro-Gbagbo forces along political and ethnic lines, amounting to crimes against humanity. These grave violations included massacres in the far west and hundreds of killings in Abidjan, even after Gbagbo's arrest on April 11.
Widespread violations by Ouattara's Republican Forces (Forces Républicaines de Côte d'Ivoire, FRCI) began much later, during their military offensive that started in the far west in early March. Human Rights Watch, like the Commission of Inquiry, documented killings and rape by the Republican Forces in the far west, including participation in a massacre in the town of Duékoué. The abuse continued during the final battle for Abidjan and as the Republican Forces consolidated control there while searching for weapons and remaining pro-Gbagbo militiamen.
On May 19, the International Criminal Court prosecutor said he would investigate crimes committed in Côte d'Ivoire. Human Rights Watch urged Ouattara and foreign governments, particularly Ghana, where several high-level Gbagbo allies implicated in abuses are rumored to have fled, to cooperate with the ICC if an investigation is opened.
Human Rights Watch also stressed the importance of holding fair domestic trials to ensure justice for victims and to promote respect for the rule of law in the conflict-ravaged country. Scores of people alleged to have participated in or overseen abuses by the former Gbagbo forces have been in detention for over two months, but prosecutors have still not initiated formal charges. Human Rights Watch called on the government to end this legal limbo and to initiate proceedings swiftly against people in detention, in accordance with law, or release them.
In sharp contrast, no member of the Republican Forces has been arrested or detained for grave post-election crimes, despite reports of their involvement in war crimes and potential crimes against humanity by the Commission of Inquiry, the United Nations Operations in Côte d'Ivoire, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). The Commission of Inquiry report specifically noted that, "At present, it has not been informed of credible judicial procedures against FRCI elements accused of human rights violations."
"There is a growing divide between the Ouattara government's rhetoric that no one is above the law and the reality that justice appears one-sided and delayed," Dufka said. "While the demands are enormous as the country rebuilds from a decade of violence, the even-handed pursuit of justice will go a long way toward restoring Ivoirians' faith in the government and the rule of law."