(Nairobi) – Côte d’Ivoire’s government has made little progress in addressing root causes of the country’s decade of politico-military violence in the two years since President Alassane Ouattara’s inauguration on May 21, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. These problems threaten the country’s long-term stability despite a strong economic rebound, Human Rights Watch said.
In the coming year, the Ivorian government should prioritize addressing these issues, including the lack of accountability among the security forces, the need for disarmament and security sector reform, and land conflict, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also build on its efforts to ensure that economic growth leads to improved protection of economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights.
“The Ouattara government may have made meaningful progress in rebuilding the economy and infrastructure after years of devastation by conflict and mismanagement,” said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the lack of impartial justice as well as the failure to address other issues that underpin a decade of abuse could undermine longer-term prospects for stability and development.”
Internationally recognized results proclaimed Ouattara the winner of the November 2010 election, but Laurent Gbagbo, his opponent, refused to step down as president. That caused a five-month crisis during which at least 3,000 people were killed and 150 women raped, with forces on both sides often carrying out attacks along political, ethnic, and religious lines. Gbagbo was arrested on April 11, 2011, and ultimately transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he remains in custody while judges decide if there is enough evidence to try him for four counts of crimes against humanity.
Despite the destruction during the war and more recent security threats, the Ouattara government has made notable progress in a number of areas. The International Monetary Fund has reported nearly 10 percent economic growth in Côte d’Ivoire for 2012. The government is widely praised for improving the road system. Large infrastructure projects that aim to increase access to electricity and clean water have been announced. The government has increased the judiciary’s budget and become a state party to the ICC. And President Ouattara has made strong commitments to fight corruption. He has also been the chairman of the West African bloc ECOWAS since February 2012, helping lead the region’s response to the Malian crisis, among other initiatives.
But serious challenges remain, Human Rights Watch said. It is vitally important for economic growth, as well as increased government support for efforts such as improving the justice system and developing water and power resources, to lead to demonstrable improvements for Ivorians’ rights. These include key rights to justice, water, and security.
President Ouattara has repeatedly promised that all those responsible on both sides for serious international crimes during the post-election crisis will be brought to account, regardless of political affiliation. Prosecutors have charged more than 150 people from the Gbagbo camp with such crimes, including at least 55 with violent crimes like genocide, crimes against the civilian population, and murder. But no member of the pro-Ouattara forces has been charged for crimes committed during the crisis.
On May 18, Ivorian authorities detained Amadé Ouérémi, a Burkinabé cocoa planter and militia leader. Human Rights Watch implicated him in a command role in the March 2011 Duékoué massacre, in which several hundred people from typically pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups were summarily executed. His forces fought alongside President Ouattara’s Republican Forces during the offensive to remove Gbagbo from power. It was not clear whether Ouérémi’s detention was linked to possible grave crimes during the crisis or a result of his refusal to leave the protected forest region of Mont Peko, despite repeated demands by the government.
“People suspected of serious international crimes shouldn’t get a free pass just because they are linked to the government in power,” Wells said. “What happens next with Amadé Ouérémi will be telling. A credible investigation and, evidence permitting, prosecution would help heal the deep communal divisions in western Côte d’Ivoire and show that justice may finally be available to victims on both sides.”
The Ivorian authorities’ decision to investigate the serious crimes committed by Gbagbo’s forces and to reject the Gbagbo party’s frequent calls for a general amnesty has been a positive move, Human Rights Watch said. But many of those charged from the Gbagbo camp have been in pre-trial detention for more than two years. Ivorian authorities should move these cases to trial quickly, ensuring that the full rights of the accused are protected, Human Rights Watch said.
The Ivorian government should also cooperate fully with the ICC. On November 22, 2012, the ICC unsealed a February 2012 arrest warrant against Simone Gbagbo, the former president’s wife, who remains in Ivorian custody facing domestic charges of genocide, among other crimes.
Ivorian authorities have yet to respond formally to the ICC arrest warrant. At a news conference on April 29, Justice Minister Gnénéma Coulibaly said: “When we have finished reflecting [on the transfer request], we will tell the ICC what we plan to do. The more we take our time, the more our reflection improves.”
However, the failure to respond breaches the government’s obligation either to transfer her to ICC custody or to formally challenge the admissibility of her case before the ICC on the grounds that Côte d’Ivoire has ongoing proceedings for substantially the same crimes.
“Over a year after Ivorian authorities were probably informed of the warrant, they’ve had ample time to decide where they think Simone Gbagbo should be tried,” Wells said. “Côte d’Ivoire’s failure to comply with its legal obligation to cooperate with the ICC in this case is all the more startling given the government’s positive decision to become an ICC state party.”
Since President Ouattara’s inauguration, Côte d’Ivoire has faced regular security threats, marked by a series of attacks on military installations and civilians carried out by militants still loyal to Gbagbo. An April 2013 report by the UN Group of Experts on Côte d’Ivoire reinforced previous findings by Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group in showing links between financers in Ghana, pro-Gbagbo militiamen and mercenaries along the Liberian-Ivorian border waging attacks, and other militants within Côte d’Ivoire.
However, in response to the security threats, members of the military have often engaged in serious human rights abuses, including widespread illegal detentions, inhuman treatment, torture, and, in at least few cases, extrajudicial killings. Some of the commanders implicated in these abuses were previously implicated by Human Rights Watch in a command role for serious crimes committed during the post-election crisis. The Ivorian government’s inadequate efforts to address ongoing rights abuses makes it more likely that some soldiers will continue resorting to such abuses during moments of tension, Human Rights Watch said.
The impunity for the security forces has also manifested itself in their involvement in criminal activity that often targets civilians. The UN Group of Experts found in its April report that, in consolidating their power in response to the security threats, military commanders had created a “military-economic network” throughout the country marked by parallel taxation, extortion, and smuggling worth millions of dollars. Since 2002, many former rebel commanders who now occupy key military positions have overseen similarly lucrative taxation and smuggling in northern Côte d’Ivoire, as documented by Human Rights Watch and the UN.
The human rights abuses and illegal profiteering by the military shows the urgent need to accelerate disarmament and security sector reform, Human Rights Watch said. President Ouattara has notably taken a direct role in addressing these issues since naming himself defense minister in March 2012. But scant progress has been made in disarming and returning to civilian life the tens of thousands of youth who took up arms during the crisis. Ivorian civil society leaders, former combatants, and civilians who suffer violence and extortion at the hands of armed former fighters have all expressed frustration over the lack of disarmament progress.
The Ivorian government should also swiftly follow through on President Ouattara’s statement during a visit to western Côte d’Ivoire in early May that land reform would be a government priority in 2013. For more than a decade, conflict over land has led to bloody inter-communal clashes. Several attacks along the Liberian-Ivorian border in March appear directly related to land conflict, including the illegal dispossession or sale of land belonging to people who fled the region during the post-election conflict.
“The proliferation of small arms, continued weaknesses within the judiciary, politico-ethnic division, and land conflict have proven an explosive cocktail in Côte d’Ivoire for over a decade, with civilians suffering the most,” Wells said. “There is a pressing need to tackle these issues if the Ouattara government is to fulfill its promise of making the country a rights-respecting pillar of the region.”
The 2010-2011 post-election crisis marked the culmination of a decade of politico-ethnic conflict in which security forces, rebel forces, and allied militia groups regularly committed serious crimes against civilians with complete impunity. National and international organizations, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, documented war crimes and likely crimes against humanity by both pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces during the post-election crisis.
Soon after his inauguration, President Ouattara established three national justice institutions to deal with these atrocities: a national commission of inquiry; a dialogue, truth, and reconciliation commission; and a special investigative cell. In an August 2012 report, the national commission of inquiry echoed findings from human rights organizations, documenting hundreds of summary executions by forces loyal to both sides.
In April 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report that assessed the work of the three national justice institutions, focusing particularly on the special investigative cell tasked with performing judicial investigations. The report offeredrecommendations for improving the government’s support for civilian prosecutors and judges investigating and prosecuting these crimes. Important measures include developing a prosecutorial strategy; protecting judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and witnesses; reforming the criminal procedure code to better protect defense rights; bolstering prosecutorial and judicial independence; and recruiting judicial police from all affected communities.
On May 3, Human Rights Watch received by fax an official government response to its report from Justice Minister Gnénéma Coulibaly. Coulibaly said that the government agreed with many of the report’s recommendations and is working toward carrying them out.
However, in a May 17 letter to the justice minister, Human Rights Watch expressed concern at the government response’s inaccurate portrayal of the state of prosecutions. The justice minister implied that the 150 people from the Gbabgo camp who face charges are charged only with economic crimes. Many of them have been charged with violent crimes, however.
The UN Human Rights Council’s independent expert on the situation of human rights in Côte d’Ivoire found in a January report that prosecutors had charged at least 55 people from the Gbagbo camp with serious violent crimes, including 48 with genocide. Other common charges include murder and crimes against the civilian population. The UN independent expert, like Human Rights Watch, reported that no member of the pro-Ouattara forces had been charged with violent crimes committed during the post-election crisis.
Human Rights Watch recognizes that investigations and prosecutions take time and, as the justice minister has noted, are ongoing. However, while both sides were implicated in serious international crimes during the crisis, only one side is answering for these crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
In October 2011, the ICC opened an investigation in Côte d’Ivoire following repeated requests from the Ivorian government – first, in 2003 by the Gbagbo government, and again in December 2010 and May 2011 by President Ouattara. Côte d’Ivoire became a state party to the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty, in February.
The ICC has publicly issued arrest warrants against only Laurent and Simone Gbagbo, though the Office of the Prosecutor has indicated that its investigations are ongoing and impartial.