© 2011 Human Rights Watch

Les mêmes causes produisent les mêmes effets (“The same causes produce the same effects”). It’s a phrase I’ve heard Ivorian lawyers, taxi drivers, and civil society leaders utter repeatedly in recent months to describe Côte d’Ivoire’s uneven prospects for reconciliation so long as President Alassane Ouattara’s government makes little progress toward impartial justice and addressing abuses by the security forces. But the phrase applies just as aptly to the failure of Côte d’Ivoire’s most important partner, France, to publicly make human rights issues a priority in its diplomatic relationship.

After the end of the deadly post-election crisis in May 2011, the Ivorian economy has begun to rebound and infrastructure has been rebuilt. President Ouattara, a distinguished economist, has focused on good governance and attracting investment – with an unsurprising eye to France.

But Côte d’Ivoire’s progress remains unstable, in part because the government has failed to tackle the root causes of repeated politico-military violence, including land conflict, ubiquitous small arms, and, above all, the culture of impunity among security forces. While justice advances against former President Laurent Gbagbo’s camp, Ivorian authorities have yet to arrest, much less charge, a single member of the pro-Ouattara forces who likewise committed grave crimes during the post-election crisis.

After a worrying spate of attacks against military installations in August 2012, soldiers arbitrarily detained hundreds of young men from ethnic groups perceived as pro-Gbagbo and subjected many to inhuman treatment and, in the worst cases, torture. One youth I interviewed, who was detained, beaten, and forced to pay an exorbitant sum for his release, without any evidence presented against him, described the danger of these abuses: “If someone asks me tomorrow to pick up a gun and fight the FRCI [the military], I don’t know what I’ll say. When people have been stripped of everything, when all we are left with is hatred … we’re a long way from reconciliation.”

Diplomats and high-level United Nations officials, as well as international and national human rights groups, have raised concerns about the human rights situation. However, one voice, for the most part, has been conspicuously quiet: the government of President Hollande.

Given its relationship with and investment in Côte d’Ivoire, France has a unique role and responsibility to promote human rights. Moreover, the Guidelines to European Union Policy towards Third Countries on Torture state that the goal of the EU, and its member states, is to “influence third countries to take effective measures against torture and ill-treatment.” The Guidelines call specifically for public statements.

Yet public messages from French officials have rarely focused on impartial justice and ongoing rights violations. When they have, they’ve been tepid and couched in almost apologetic language. While French diplomats may pass stronger messages behind closed doors, quiet diplomacy has proven inadequate to spur the needed action.

In a particularly unfortunate missed opportunity, the communiqué from Hollande’s December 4 meeting with President Ouattara made no mention of human rights issues. The meeting occurred three days after the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights denounced arbitrary arrests and torture by the Ivorian military, saying he had personally interviewed torture victims.

Hollande has promised to end the paternalism of Françafrique. A move toward respectful diplomatic relationships is laudable, but Elysée has used this as an excuse in not speaking out on human rights issues in Côte d’Ivoire. It is not paternalistic to meet France’s responsibilities under EU guidelines, or to speak candidly with the Ivorian government about addressing abuses that deepen the country’s dangerous divisions – particularly when France provides considerable assistance toward revamping the justice and security sectors.

Hollande’s reluctance to raise human rights concerns with the Ivorian government reflects a continuation of, rather than a break from, the Sarkozy and Chirac years. After the 2002-2003 Ivorian conflict, Côte d’Ivoire’s international partners stayed silent as justice was sidelined in the misguided belief that that would promote peace. In 2004, an international commission of inquiry produced a damning report on the conflict’s atrocities, including an annex naming 95 people implicated in serious crimes. The Security Council, with France as a leader on Côte d’Ivoire, buried the report; it remains unpublished today.

By the elections in November 2010, no one had been credibly investigated for the crimes committed during the 2002-2003 conflict. Military and political leaders implicated in war crimes retained positions of power on both sides, and, when the post-election crisis erupted, the previous conflict’s atrocities were replicated on an even larger scale. Human Rights Watch’s November 2012 report on recent abuses implicates some of the same commanders once again.

With tensions still simmering and impunity entrenched, the causes of large-scale violence persist. Primary responsibility for addressing these issues rests with the Ivorian government. But France can either use its unique relationship to help Côte d’Ivoire break from the dangerous legacy of the Gbagbo years, or continue providing the government cover as it shies away from any action against its military commanders – no matter the nature or scale of crimes they’ve been implicated in. The possible consequences of the second choice have already been seen.

In 2013, France should publicly press the Ivorian government to make human rights issues – particularly accountability – a priority.

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