The March 10 conviction of Simone Gbagbo, Côte d’Ivoire’s “Iron Lady,” did little to advance justice for victims of human rights abuses committed during the country’s 2010-2011 crisis. Instead, the trial highlighted the reforms needed if the Ivorian justice system is to credibly prosecute atrocity crimes.
Côte d’Ivoire’s ruling party cited Gbagbo’s conviction and 20-year sentence as proof of President Alassane Ouattara’s commitment to fighting impunity. But Gbagbo was convicted only of offenses against the state, not for the killings and rape that constitute the basis of crimes against humanity charges that she faces at the International Criminal Court.
Indeed, in the more than four years since the post-election violence, there has not yet been a single trial in civilian courts for human rights abuses committed during the crisis. This is not because of a lack of documentation of atrocities. National and United Nations commissions of inquiry, and international organizations including Human Rights Watch, have all released findings implicating pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces in war crimes and likely crimes against humanity.
Côte d’Ivoire has said it is making progress in prosecuting human rights abuses related to the post-election crisis, and some international observers believe trials could take place before October’s presidential election. Prosecutions may even target members of pro-Ouattara forces, a vital step to further reconciliation and to avoiding exacerbating political and ethnic divisions.
The trial of Simone Gbagbo and about 80 co-accused, however, raises serious concerns about the quality of justice in Côte d’Ivoire. The two-month trial was observed by Ivorian and international human rights groups, which criticized a lack of rigor in the investigation and said that convictions were obtained, “on the basis of little persuasive evidence.” Such criticisms offer an easy way for Gbagbo and her supporters to refute the verdict and illuminate the obstacles the Ivorian justice system must overcome to deliver credible justice to victims.
The United Nations human rights commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, stated on March 11 that the trial exposed “structural deficiencies” in the judicial system that he said need to be “urgently addressed” if Côte d’Ivoire is to try serious human rights cases.
Key challenges Human Rights Watch has identified include the lack of protection for judges, victims and witnesses – a precondition for effective investigations and prosecutions, especially against pro-Ouattara forces – and the need for prosecutors and judges to use documentary evidence and witness testimony to more clearly link alleged high-level perpetrators to atrocities.
President Ouattara has repeatedly promised to bring those responsible for serious human rights violations during the 2010-2011 crisis to account, regardless of political affiliation or military rank. To ensure this promising rhetoric is put into practice, and to learn from Simone Gbagbo’s trial, Cote d’Ivoire should do four things.
First, it should transfer Simone Gbagbo to the Hague. ICC judges ruled in December that Côte d’Ivoire was required to transfer Ms. Gbagbo because the government had not yet demonstrated that it was taking concrete, tangible steps to investigate her for human rights crimes. Transferring her to the ICC remains the surest path to justice for victims of her alleged crimes against humanity.
Second, the Ministry of Justice should give judges and prosecutors in the Special Investigative Cell the support they need to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses, including those committed by the Republican Forces that fought for President Ouattara. The Ministry should, in particular, bolster security for investigating judges, including by providing bodyguards where there is an elevated risk of threats.
Third, the government should prioritize vital reforms – with support from key international partners, notably France, the European Union and the United States – that would bring much-needed security and confidence to victims and witnesses, including passage of a proposed law on witness protection.
Finally, the Ivorian government should avoid inappropriate interference with the discretion of the Special Investigative Cell to determine when human rights cases are ready for trial. Judges and prosecutors should make sure that the cases they bring to trial have been rigorously investigated, and that courts hear all the available evidence before determining culpability.
If the Ivorian government is intending to jump-start prosecutions for human rights cases, it deserves credit for its renewed commitment to accountability. Victims from both sides of Côte d’Ivoire’s post-election crisis have already waited four years for justice – they deserve trials that are credible and fair.
Jim Wormington is a West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch