(Nairobi) – The transfer of former President Laurent Gbagbo to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for his alleged role in international crimes during Côte d’Ivoire’s devastating post-election violence is a major step toward ensuring justice, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the ICC prosecutor to move swiftly on investigations for grave crimes committed by forces allied with the current president, Alassane Ouattara.
Gbagbo’s refusal to step down when the Independent Electoral Commission and international observers proclaimed Ouattara the winner of the November 28, 2010 presidential run-off set off six months of violence. At least 3,000 people were killed and more than 150 women raped during the conflict period, often in targeted acts by forces on both sides along political, ethnic, and religious lines.
“This is a big day for the victims of Côte d’Ivoire’s horrific post-election violence,” said Elise Keppler, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “That Laurent Gbagbo now has to answer to the court sends a strong message to Ivorian political and military leaders that no one should be above the law.”
According to news reports, Ivorian judicial authorities informed Gbagbo of the ICC arrest warrant on November 29, 2011. Gbagbo is the first former head of state taken into custody by the ICC. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, have likewise been subject to ICC arrest warrants. Al-Bashir has not come into ICC custody, nor did Gaddafi.
“The ICC is playing its part to show that even those at the highest levels of power cannot escape justice when implicated in grave crimes,” Keppler said.
Efforts by both the ICC and the Ivorian government to ensure accountability for the post-election crimes are important in returning the rule of law to Côte d’Ivoire, Human Rights Watch said. However, investigations with a view to prosecutions are needed without delay for individuals implicated in grave crimes who fought in the forces allied with Ouattara.
Since Gbagbo’s arrest by pro-Ouattara forces on April 11, Ivorian civilian and military prosecutors have charged more than 120 people linked to the Gbagbo camp with post-election crimes. No one from the pro-Ouattara forces has been charged with post-election crimes. This creates a perception of victor’s justice and risks stoking further communal tensions, Human Rights Watch said.
“While the Gbagbo camp fueled the violence through its refusal to relinquish power and its incitement, forces on both sides have been repeatedly implicated in grave crimes,” Keppler said. “The many victims of abuse meted out by forces loyal to President Ouattara also deserve to see justice done.”
Human Rights Watch conducted six field missions to Côte d’Ivoire during the crisis, documenting the evolution of the post-election violence from its outbreak in November 2010 through the conclusion of fighting in May 2011. A report released by Human Rights Watch on October 5 detailed serious international crimes committed by both sides and implicated 13 military and civilian leaders as among those responsible. Gbagbo was specifically named for his role as commander-in-chief of armed forces that committed war crimes and likely crimes against humanity. Despite clear evidence of grave crimes committed by his military and militia supporters, Gbagbo neither denounced nor took steps to prevent or investigate the crimes.
In May, Ouattara asked the ICC to open an investigation into the post-election violence, indicating that Ivorian courts would not be able to prosecute those at the highest levels for the worst crimes committed. The ICC judges authorized the prosecutor to open an investigation on October 3, citing evidence of war crimes and likely crimes against humanity by both sides’ armed forces and allied militia groups. Gbagbo’s arrest and transfer on November 29 is the first for the ICC’s investigation in Côte d’Ivoire. Credible information suggests that several Gbagbo allies implicated in serious crimes may likewise be subject to imminent ICC arrest warrants.
The ICC prosecutor should also pursue cases involving crimes committed during the 2002-2003 armed conflict and its aftermath, Human Rights Watch said. The 2010 violence capped a decade of human rights violations and impunity in Côte d’Ivoire. The failure to address the worst earlier abuses risks undermining important efforts to enshrine the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said.
Ouattara has promised repeatedly that anyone implicated in crimes committed during the post-election period will be brought to justice. But in terms of charges brought at the national level, the reality remains in stark contrast.
“Especially given the lack of domestic accountability efforts for crimes committed by forces allied with President Ouattara, the ICC prosecutor should move promptly to investigate their grave crimes and encourage the Ivorian government to proceed with domestic prosecutions against all responsible serious crimes, whatever side they were on,” Keppler said. “Justice for crimes by both sides is key in breaking the cycles of violence that have plagued Côte d’Ivoire during the past decade.”
Beginning in December 2010, after Gbagbo refused to accept the election results, elite security force units closely linked to Gbagbo abducted neighborhood political leaders from Ouattara’s coalition, dragging them away from restaurants or out of their homes into waiting vehicles. Family members later found the victims’ bodies in morgues, riddled with bullets.
Pro-Gbagbo militia manning informal checkpoints throughout Abidjan murdered scores of real or perceived Ouattara supporters, beating them to death with bricks, executing them by gunshot at point-blank range, or burning them alive. Women 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.
As international pressure increased on Gbagbo to step down, the violence became more appalling, Human Rights Watch said. The Gbagbo government-controlled state television station, Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI), incited violence against pro-Ouattara groups and exhorted 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 Muslim religious leaders were likewise targeted.
Abuses by pro-Ouattara forces did not reach a comparable scale until they began their military offensive in March 2011 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 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 several hundred people, pulling unarmed men they alleged to be pro-Gbagbo militia out of their homes and executing them.
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.
By the conflict’s end, both sides’ armed forces had committed war crimes and likely crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said. An international commission of inquiry presented a report to the Human Rights Council in mid-June that likewise found war crimes and likely crimes against humanity to have been committed by both pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Operations in Côte d’Ivoire, the International Federation of Human Rights, and Amnesty International have all released similar findings.