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High-level government officials in Côte d’Ivoire appear to be using the fact that the ICC has issued arrest warrants against people from only one side of the recent conflict to justify their own selective approach to justice. That approach ignores thousands of victims and threatens the country’s return to rule of law.


With the ICC celebrating its 10th anniversary, the maneuvers by Ivorian officials make it all the more pressing for the ICC’s new prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to pursue, and be seen to pursue, all allegations of atrocity crimes regardless of political affiliation. Delays in doing so only strengthen the hand of those seeking to use the ICC as a tool to further their political agendas.


The November 2010 presidential election runoff in Côte d’Ivoire set off six months of grave human rights abuses in which at least 3,000 people were killed and several hundred women raped, largely on political or ethnic grounds. This violence was in many ways the culmination of a decade of impunity for grave crimes and simmering political-ethnic tensions, as the rule of law was largely replaced by militia forces practicing vigilantism.


Power has changed hands, but the impartial justice often promised by President Alassane Ouattara remains essential if the country is to overcome its still deep communal divisions.


While forces loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo committed most of the crimes during the post-election crisis’s first months, pro-Ouattara forces likewise committed grave crimes after beginning their military offensive to remove Gbagbo from power. Armed forces on both sides were credibly implicated in war crimes and likely crimes against humanity, as documented by a UN-established international commission of inquiry, and by the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Federation for Human Rights, among others. 


Fifteen months after pro-Ouattara forces arrested Gbagbo, military and civilian prosecutors in Côte d’Ivoire have charged more than 140 people with post-election crimesall from the Gbagbo camp. Not surprisingly, the one-sided nature of the prosecutions has resulted in criticism from human rights organizations, diplomats, and Ivorian civil society. In response, high-level government officials have increasingly explained the lack of impartial justice by turning to an unlikely ally: the ICC.


In an July 8 interview with Radio France International, Guillaume Soro, Ouattara’s former prime minister and the current head of Côte d’Ivoire’s National Assembly, said this when asked about the lack of justice for crimes committed by his side’s forces: “It was precisely in order not to be accused of victor’s justice that we brought in the International Criminal Court … [which] people cannot claim to be complaisant or to pick sides…. Up until now the ICC has been invited to come investigate in Côte d’Ivoire. Yet, the ICC, to my knowledge, has only issued four arrest warrants, [all against the Gbagbo side]. You will agree that the ICC has decided on the basis of its investigations.”  


Invited by President Ouattara to investigate the post-election violence, the ICC made an unfortunate early decision to “sequence” its investigations: first looking at the Gbagbo side, followed by promised investigations into crimes committed by pro-Ouattara forces. The decision was in part a response to the very real challenges facing an overstretched and underfunded court. The Ouattara government was ready to help the ICC build a case quickly against Gbagbo. And there were concerns about whether Gbagbo’s continued presence in Côte d’Ivoire would have security implications for legislative elections last December. From a practical point of view, the ICC gave the Ivorian government the main thing it wanted last November: Gbagbo’s surrender to The Hague.


At the same time, the consequences of a “sequencing” strategy were easily foreseeable. One-sided arrests and prosecutions were already under way in Côte d’Ivoire. The ICC’s decision to start with the Gbagbo camp would reinforce the perception that justice was only for the winners. The longer that justice remained one-sided, the more salt would be thrown on the country’s deep communal wounds. And as Soro’s words only too clearly indicate, the delays in the ICC’s strategy in Cote d’Ivoire have been misinterpreted as a green light to mete out selective justice at home.


Most of the moderate Gbagbo supporters I have interviewed over the last year believed the ICC was the best hope for breaking the stalemate of a politicized judiciary – one of the main causes of the country’s last decade of political violence. Ivorian civil society has expressed a similar faith in the ICC, at least in comparison with domestic justice mechanisms. It must be deeply disturbing for these Ivorians to see one of the country’s most powerful people point to the ICC as an excuse for why the victims of heinous crimes committed by pro-Ouattara forces have no recourse to justice.


Soro’s language should be a wake-up call to the ICC. The Gbagbo surrender and future trial are positive steps for many victims and for international justice, but the ICC can no longer delay its work on atrocity crimes by the other side. The court’s legacy in Côte d’Ivoire is at stake. More fundamentally, a perception among a sizable percentage of Ivorians that the ICC is acting like a tool of those in power could further stoke political-ethnic tensions and damage the court’s ability to obtain cooperation from certain victim groups for future investigations.


It is not the ICC’s job to step lightly around the government in power. Its job is to indict, in a manner that is individual and impartial, where there is evidence of high-level responsibility for crimes under its jurisdiction. In Côte d’Ivoire, what is needed is for the court to show that no one who commits atrocities, regardless of political affiliation or military rank, stands above the law.


Matt Wells is the Côte d’Ivoire researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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