(Paris) – The government of President Alassane Ouattara should match its rhetorical commitment to impartial justice with action against its own troops implicated in crimes during the post-election violence and its aftermath, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. An imbalance in justice efforts threatens to open new divisions at a moment when the Ouattara government has a unique opportunity to move Côte d’Ivoire past the manipulation of political and ethnic blocs that occurred under former President Laurent Gbagbo, Human Rights Watch said.
The 130-page report, “‘They Killed Them Like It Was Nothing’: The Need for Justice for Côte d’Ivoire’s Post-Election Crimes,” details the war crimes and likely crimes against humanity committed by forces under both Gbagbo and Ouattara. It documents the horrific human rights abuses that took place from November 2010, when Gbagbo lost an election and refused to yield power, through June 2011. Ouattara took power in April 2011. At least 3,000 people were killed and 150 women raped during the conflict period, often in targeted acts perpetrated along political, ethnic, and religious lines. The report also explores the accountability efforts of the Ouattara government to date, including charges brought by the civilian or military prosecutor against at least 118 members of the former Gbagbo camp.
“The Ouattara government has taken noteworthy steps to prosecute leaders of the former regime, including Gbagbo himself, against whom there is credible evidence of serious crimes,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But the pursuit of justice is essential to victims on both sides who saw their loved ones killed, or houses burned, not just a tool for the victors.”
The report is based on research conducted during six field missions between January and July 2011, including four in Abidjan and two along the Ivorian-Liberian border. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed over 500 victims and witnesses to the violence as well as members of the armed forces on both sides, Ouattara government officials, journalists, medical professionals, representatives of human rights and humanitarian organizations, United Nations officials, and diplomats in Abidjan, New York, Washington, and Paris.
The report names 13 military and political leaders implicated in serious crimes, based on corroborated information from independent sources, including victims, witnesses, and other perpetrators involved in specific events. Eight implicated leaders come from the Gbagbo camp, including former President Gbagbo, the longtime militia leader Charles Blé Goudé, the former head of the armed forces Philippe Mangou, and the former heads of two elite security forces, Guiai Bi Poin and Dogbo Blé. Four implicated leaders come from the Ouattara camp, including Eddie Médi and Ousmane Coulibaly from the Republican Forces; credible evidence presented in the report also links these two commanders to similar grave crimes committed during the 2002-2003 armed conflict and its aftermath.
Human Rights Watch documented the evolution of the post-election violence from its outbreak in November 2010 through the conclusion of fighting in May 2011. After Gbagbo refused to step down when the Independent Electoral Commission and international observers proclaimed Ouattara the winner of the November 28, 2010 runoff, Gbagbo’s security forces and allied militia groups began a campaign of violence against Ouattara supporters. Armed conflict began in March, after which both sides were implicated in grave violations of international humanitarian law.
Beginning in December, elite security force units closely linked to Gbagbo dragged neighborhood political leaders from Ouattara’s coalition away from restaurants or out of their homes into waiting vehicles; family members later found the victims’ bodies in morgues, riddled with bullets. Women who had been active in mobilizing voters – or who merely wore pro-Ouattara t-shirts – were targeted and often gang raped by armed forces and militia groups under Gbagbo’s control, after which the attackers told the women to “go tell Alassane” their problems. Pro-Gbagbo militia stopped hundreds of perceived Ouattara supporters at checkpoints and beat them to death with bricks, executed them by gunshot at point-blank range, or burned them alive.
As international pressure increased on Gbagbo to step down, the violence only became more appalling. The Gbagbo government-controlled state television station, Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI), incited violence against pro-Ouattara groups and exhorting followers to set up roadblocks and “denounce foreigners.” This marked, in many ways, the culmination of a decade of Gbagbo’s manipulation of ethnicity and citizenship, in which northern Ivorians were treated as second-class citizens and West African immigrants as unwelcome interlopers. Hundreds of people from both groups were killed in Abidjan and the far west between February and April, sometimes solely on the basis of their name or dress. Mosques and religious leaders in the Muslim community were likewise targeted.
Abuses by pro-Ouattara forces did not reach a comparable scale until they began their military offensive to take over the country. In village after village in the far west, particularly between Toulepleu and Guiglo, members of the Republican Forces allied with Ouattara killed civilians from the pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups, including elderly people who were unable to flee; raped women; and burned villages to the ground. In Duékoué, the Republican Forces and allied militias massacred hundreds of people, pulling men they alleged to be pro-Gbagbo militia out of their homes and executing them unarmed. Later, during the military campaign to take over and consolidate control of Abidjan, the Republican Forces again executed scores of men from ethnic groups aligned to Gbagbo – at times in detention sites – and tortured others.
The Ouattara government, as well as foreign diplomats close to the government, have at times implied that while the Republican Forces committed “bad acts,” these are less egregious than those committed by Gbagbo forces because Gbagbo’s refusal to step down and manipulation of ethnicity precipitated the violence. Under the norms of human rights and international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said, all crimes require prosecution, regardless of who is to blame for the conflict’s origin. Civilians from pro-Gbagbo groups who saw Ouattara’s forces kill and rape their relatives or burn their villages to the ground were no more legitimate targets than the northern Ivorians and West African immigrants killed by Gbagbo’s forces.
“International donors and key government partners have rightfully stepped in to help the Ouattara government rebuild the country,” Bekele said. “But if they want Côte d’Ivoire to become the peaceful and prosperous heart of West Africa, as it used to be, these partners need to ensure that justice is done – and is seen to be done – for both sides’ crimes.”
The June report of an international commission of inquiry, commissioned by UN Human Rights Council at the request of Ouattara’s government, included an annex that identified individuals who should be investigated for their possible involvement in serious crimes. Human Rights Watch has been told, however, that while the annex was provided to the International Criminal Court prosecutor and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, it has not been made available to the Ivorian government.
Human Rights Watch called on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide the annex immediately to the relevant authorities in Côte d’Ivoire, including President Ouattara, the justice minister, and the Abidjan and Daloa prosecutors, to ensure that victims see justice done.
Civilian and military prosecutors in Côte d’Ivoire have both initiated proceedings against members of the Gbagbo camp, with at least 118 people charged so far. But six months after the Duékoué massacre, one of the single worst events of the crisis, no member of the Republican Forces has yet faced charge for crimes committed during the post-election violence. Many of those who lost loved ones during the massacre remain at a humanitarian camp on the outskirts of the town, afraid and unable to return home.
On September 27, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on behalf of the Elders, a group of internationally renowned political and moral leaders, “encourage[d] President Ouattara to demonstrate to his people and the world that the judicial process he has started is both fair and completely impartial…. [W]e are convinced that the perception that ‘victor’s justice’ is being applied would greatly undermine the reconciliation process.”
“President Ouattara needs to swiftly match his soaring rhetoric on ending impunity with credible prosecutions of those in his camp who committed serious crimes,” Bekele said. “After a decade under Gbagbo in which security forces were above the law, it’s only through impartial justice that the rule of law will return and all Ivorians will begin to heal from the suffering imposed by this conflict.”