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ICC: Côte d’Ivoire Case Highlights Court’s Missteps

Gaps in Case Selection, Limited Outreach Undermined Impact

A newsstand displays the day’s papers on October 1, 2014, including headline coverage of a pre-trial hearing then underway in a case before the International Criminal Court stemming from Cote d’Ivoire’s 2010-2011 post-election violence.  © Human Rights Watch 2014
(The Hague) – The International Criminal Court (ICC) missed important opportunities to maximize the impact of its work in Côte d’Ivoire, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report offers wider lessons for the ICC’s work around the world, finding that to maximize the impact of its work, court officials need to engage a broader set of victims and local communities.
The 88-page report, “Making Justice Count: Lessons from the ICC’s Work in Côte d’Ivoire,” draws on interviews with activists, journalists, and ICC staff in Abidjan and The Hague to assess whether the ICC has done what it can to ensure that its proceedings are relevant, meaningful, and accessible to Ivorians. Human Rights Watch found that the prosecution’s decision to limit its initial investigations to one side of the country’s 2010-2011 post-election crisis was a misstep, compounded when other court staff adopted the same narrow focus in their efforts to engage Ivorians in the court’s work. This lessened the court’s potential impact in the country.
“The ICC acts on a global stage, but the heart of its mandate is delivering justice to communities affected by mass atrocities,” said Elizabeth Evenson, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “ICC officials need to make sure that what the court does resonates in those communities.”

The ICC prosecution opened investigations in Côte d’Ivoire in October 2011. But it has only opened cases into crimes allegedly committed by forces allied with former President Laurent Gbagbo, despite findings by national and United Nations commissions of inquiry implicating both pro-Gbagbo forces and those allied with the current president, Alassane Ouattara, in atrocities. The ICC’s cases have also focused on alleged crimes in the country’s economic capital, Abidjan, even though some of the worst abuses were in the western part of the country.

The ICC prosecutor has brought cases against Laurent Gbagbo; his wife, Simone Gbagbo; and Charles Blé Goudé, Laurent Gbagbo’s former youth minister and close ally who was the longtime leader of a violent, pro-Gbagbo militia group. The trial of Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé is scheduled to begin in November 2015, while Simone Gbagbo remains in Côte d’Ivoire after authorities there refused to surrender her to the court.

The ICC prosecution has said that it will expand its investigations in Côte d’Ivoire before the end of 2015 to all sides to the violence and has cited resource constraints to explain delays in bringing additional cases.

“Additional ICC investigations are necessary, but the focus so far on pro-Ggbabo forces has deeply polarized opinion within Côte d’Ivoire about the ICC,” Evenson said. “Many victims feel that the court has ignored their suffering.”

The ICC acts on a global stage, but the heart of its mandate is delivering justice to communities affected by mass atrocities. ICC officials need to make sure that what the court does resonates in those communities.
Elizabeth Evenson

senior international justice counsel

Perceptions of bias generated by the prosecution’s choice of cases posed a challenge for the ICC’s Outreach Unit, a body within the court’s registry, to deliver neutral information about court proceedings in Côte d’Ivoire. But, lacking the resources to deploy a full-time staff member to the country until October 2014, the Outreach Unit focused on disseminating information to victims of the specific incidents contained in the prosecution’s charges through a network of civil society organizations. A separate registry unit that helps victims access their rights before the ICC had a staff member in Côte d’Ivoire, but nonetheless needed at times to have a similar focus.

It is essential to provide information to victims of the specific crimes pursued by the prosecution, especially because these victims have particular rights before the ICC. But when that approach comes at the expense of broader contact with affected communities, it narrows the court’s footprint, lessening its potential impact, Human Rights Watch said.

“The pitfalls to the ICC’s impact of a one-sided approach have been on full display in Côte d’Ivoire,” said Evenson. “The effect is multiplied given that outreach and victim strategies focused for the most part on individuals directly affected by the cases, doubling down on the prosecution’s overly selective approach.”

Lessons from Côte d’Ivoire should be incorporated into a policy on selecting and prioritizing cases that the ICC prosecutor’s office is drafting. In Kenya and its most recent investigations in the Central African Republic, the prosecutor has investigated all parties simultaneously instead of sequentially as in Côte d’Ivoire. The prosecutor should consult more with victims to make sure the choice of cases responds to their experiences, and take a broad geographic approach to identify cases that reflect underlying patterns of crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

The registry should develop improved strategies to deepen the court’s outreach and victim assistance activities, including carrying out planned reforms for the court’s field offices. The registry will need to ensure that the offices have sufficient staff for broad outreach, alongside specialized efforts to inform victims of their rights.

As demands for accountability have mounted on the ICC, which is conducting investigations in eight countries and considering whether to open investigations in several others, it has become more and more difficult for the court to keep up. But that does not lessen the importance of ensuring that where the court does act, it reaches the communities affected by the crimes.

“Strengthening the court’s impact on the ground shouldn’t be an afterthought,” Evenson said. “ICC member countries should ensure the court has sufficient resources to make justice count locally.” 

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