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Building a House on a Sand Pile: The Cost of Ignoring Justice in Côte d’Ivoire

Published in: L'Express

(Abidjan) - Nearly two years have passed since the end of Côte d’Ivoire’s brutal five-month long post-electoral crisis, which resulted in the slaughter of at least 3,000 civilians and the rape of 150 women.

Neither side is solely to blame: forces loyal to both former President Laurent Gbagbo and President Alassane Ouattara are implicated in these atrocities. Yet so far only those victimized by the losing side – the pro-Gbagbo forces – have any hope of seeing justice.

At first, efforts to secure justice moved swiftly:  pro-Ouattara forces arrested Gbagbo on April 11, 2011, and in late November he was whisked away to The Hague. He remains in custody as International Criminal Court judges decide whether he can be tried for crimes against humanity.

Since his May 2011 inauguration, President Ouattara has promised time and again that everyone responsible for the atrocities  would be brought to justice, including members of  the Republican Forces, the army Ouattara created by  decree  in March 2011. To do this, he has created, among other things, a special unit to investigate and prosecute those implicated in the post-election crimes. This unit has charged more than 150 people – but not a single suspect comes from the pro-Ouattara forces. And none of those charged by this special unit have been brought to trial.

Of course, justice for atrocities was not the only item on the post-crisis agenda. Faced with the daunting task of rebuilding a country wracked by more than a decade of politico-military violence, President Ouattara has helped kick-start the economy and re-establish infrastructure and key institutions, like courthouses and prisons.

If success is measured by only these benchmarks, then Côte d’Ivoire may be inching closer to regaining the status it enjoyed through the late ‘80s as the economic powerhouse of francophone West Africa. Against this backdrop, seeking justice for those who helped to consolidate Ouattara’s grip on power during the crisis seems inconvenient.

But that assessment ignores the risks associated with giving one side of the conflict a free pass for its atrocities.  The response by some members of the Republican Forces to the spate of attacks on Ivorian military installations in August and September 2012, many of which were probably carried out by pro-Gbagbo militants, is telling. Following the attacks, we documented widespread human rights abuses against young men from pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups, including mass arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, extortion, cruel and inhuman treatment, and, in some cases, torture.

Several commanders implicated in overseeing these abuses had been previously implicated in grave crimes during the post-election crisis. In turn, the new abuses have made the country’s communal divisions worse, reinforcing the factors that are driving the security threats in the first place.  

Almost every civil society activist I interviewed last year pointed to the lack of accountability following the 2002-2003 civil conflict – during which both pro-Gbagbo security forces and the Forces Nouvelles rebel group committed serious international crimes – as laying the foundation for the 2010-2011 post-election crisis. As one civil society activist put it, “The impunity of today leads to the crimes tomorrow.”

The government has promised justice for all sides, but it’s clear that words aren’t enough to change the status quo. The investigative unit needs to investigate cases on the Ouattara side more actively. And the criminal justice system, including the code of criminal procedure, badly needs an overhaul so that those languishing in detention can be brought to court to answer the charges against them.  While justice takes time, without more support from the government – financial, technical and political - these institutions will continue to flounder.

Donors also need to step up their assistance. Key donors – including France and the European Union – have poured money into rebuilding the rule of law in Côte d’Ivoire. But very little of that assistance is directed at building capacity or using public diplomacy to push for more progress in the prosecution, trial and defense of these serious international crimes. The lack of progress only emphasizes why this support is necessary.

And let’s not forget the role of the International Criminal Court. Its pursuit so far only of Laurent and Simone Gbagbo has legitimized the one-sided approach to justice in Côte d’Ivoire, fueling rather than easing tensions. Evidence permitting, ICC arrest warrants against members of the pro-Ouattara forces would help put more pressure on Ivorian authorities to prosecute others responsible for the post-election atrocities from both sides in Cote d’Ivoire.

Cote d’Ivoire’s history of episodic violence has shown that the past is hard to forget. Like a house built on a pile of sand, without more progress on justice, Cote d’Ivoire’s fragile recovery risks crumbling to pieces in the face of the next violent storm.

Param-Preet Singh is a senior counsel for international justice at Human Rights Watch.

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