Late in the afternoon on November 29, former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo was removed from his prison cell in the dusty northern town of Korhogo and served with an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC). He was then put aboard a plane to The Hague, where he now faces four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, and persecution.
For six months after contested elections in Côte d’Ivoire in late 2010, political violence escalated to an unprecedented level, and at least 3,000 people were killed by both sides. In-depth fieldwork by Human Rights Watch researchers provided a steady stream of information to diplomats and UN peacekeepers, who responded with more robust protection for vulnerable civilians.
Our timely and detailed reporting played a major role in the ICC’s decision to open an investigation – a key step in bringing those responsible for crimes in Côte d’Ivoire to justice.
The decision of the ICC’s judges who authorized an investigation in Côte d’Ivoire mentions Human Rights Watch 75 times, including references to news releases issued during the fighting and reports written in past years.
Gbagbo is the first former head of state to be taken into custody by the ICC.
Human Rights Watch researchers conducted six tense and difficult field missions to Côte d’Ivoire during the fighting, which began after then-President Gbagbo refused to cede power to his political rival, Alassane Ouattara, who won the November 2010 presidential election. The crisis continued through May, one month after president-elect Ouattara’s troops swept through Côte d’Ivoire, wrenching power from Gbagbo.
We documented egregious crimes committed by all sides, providing our information to the news media and to diplomatic channels. On both sides, many victimsappeared to have been targeted on political, ethnic, and religious grounds.
When the conflict began, most abuses were by pro-Gbagbo fighters, who killed, disappeared, and raped hundreds of real and perceived Ouattara supporters.
We reported how, over state television, Gbagbo’s youth minister called on “real” Ivoirians to set up neighborhood roadblocks and “denounce” foreigners – citizens of neighboring countries and Ivorian citizens of different ethnicity from the northern part of the country, Ouattara’s stronghold.
When armed troops backing Ouattara went on the offensive in April, eventually taking power, they ravaged villages in the west, killing and raping perceived Gbagbo supporters – in their homes and as they tried to hide in the bush. These forces attacked the elderly and those too sick to flee. At least 10 villages were burned.
Our latest report, based on 500 interviews and released last October, not only details the attacks, but also names military and political leaders implicated in serious crimes – eight were Gbagbo supporters while four backed Ouattara.
We still have much work to do in Côte d’Ivoire, and are now trying to ensure that justice will not be one-sided. The government of President Ouattara has taken noteworthy steps to ensure investigation and prosecution of leaders of the former governmentimplicated in grave crimes, including Gbagbo. But Ouattara has not taken action against his own troops accused of crimes, including massacres and rapes, during the fighting.
Gbagbo’s transfer to the ICC was a landmark event. We will continue to apply pressure to help ensure that other high-level officials implicated in serious abuses, from both sides, are likewise prosecuted either in Côte d’Ivoire or at the ICC.