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Former Cote d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo attends a confirmation of charges hearing in his pre-trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands on February 19, 2013. © 2013 Reuters
  1. Who are Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé, and why are they on trial?
  2. Why is this trial important?
  3. Isn’t Simone Gbagbo, the former first lady, also wanted by the ICC?
  4. What happened in Côte d’Ivoire?
  5. Will the ICC take action on abuses by pro-Ouattara forces?
  6. How will the people in Côte d’Ivoire know what is happening in The Hague?
  7. Why has the ICC process against Gbagbo and Blé Goudé taken so long?
  8.  Who is paying for Gbagbo and Blé Goudé’s defense?
  9. Can victims participate in the trial?
  10. What steps are being taken in Côte d’Ivoire to bring to justice those responsible for human rights crimes during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis?
  11. Is the ICC targeting Africa?


  1. Who are Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé, and why are they on trial?  

Laurent Gbagbo is the former president of Côte d’Ivoire. Charles Blé Goudé, a close ally of Gbagbo, was the youth and employment minister in Gbagbo’s government and the leader of the Young Patriots, a pro-Gbagbo militia group.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has charged both men with individual criminal responsibility on four counts of crimes against humanity: murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, other inhumane acts, and persecution.

The charges relate to the 2010-2011 post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, when Gbagbo refused to accept the victory in the November 10 presidential election of Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo’s refusal to leave office led to an armed conflict during which at least 3,000 civilians were killed and more than 150 women were raped, with serious human rights violations by both sides.

Ivorian authorities captured Gbagbo on April 11, 2011. He remained in custody in Côte d’Ivoire until his transfer to The Hague in November 2011. The Ivorian authorities surrendered Blé Goudé to the ICC in March 2014.

In March 2015, the ICC Trial Chamber joined their cases since the two men’s conduct in the crimes alleged is “closely linked.” The Trial Chamber also explained that, according to the prosecution, largely the same evidence will be presented in both cases.

  1. Why is this trial important?

Gbagbo is the first former head of state to be tried by the ICC. His trial sends the message that the reach of justice extends to even the most powerful people when they commit the worst crimes.

The ICC has alleged that Blé Goudé was part of Gbagbo’s “inner circle,” which devised a plan to maintain Gbagbo as president by any means, including using force against civilians. The joint trial should therefore shed light on the power structure in Côte d’Ivoire that led to the commission of mass abuses during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis.

Gbagbo’s trial is the latest effort to hold to account former presidents accused of grave crimes. In 2013, the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s appeals chamber confirmed the first instance in the conviction of the Liberian former president Charles Taylor, who was found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone’s brutal 1991-2002 armed conflict. In 2015, the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal began its trial of the Chadian former dictator Hissène Habré on charges of crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes committed during his 1982-1990 rule.

  1. Isn’t Simone Gbagbo, the former first lady, also wanted by the ICC?

Yes. Laurent Gbagbo’s wife, Simone, has been in detention in Côte d’Ivoire since April 2011. In February 2012, the ICC issued a sealed arrest warrant against her, alleging that she was also part of the “inner circle” responsible for crimes against humanity by pro-Gbagbo forces. But the ICC is a court of last resort, and does not have jurisdiction over cases being tried before national courts, provided that those efforts are genuine.

In October 2013, Ivorian authorities formally challenged the admissibility of the case before the ICC, claiming that Simone Gbagbo was under investigation domestically for offenses similar to the ICC charges she faces.

In December 2014, the pre-trial chamber of the ICC rejected Côte d’Ivoire’s challenge, concluding that the “investigative steps [in Côte d’Ivoire] into Simone Gbagbo’s criminal responsibility [for crimes against humanity] are not only scarce in quantity and lacking in progression,” but that the factual contours of these steps “remain indiscernible.”

In March 2015, Ivorian authorities convicted Simone Gbagbo on charges related to crimes against the state committed during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis, in a trial riddled with fair trial concerns. She has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, although the case is being appealed by both the prosecution and the defense in Côte d’Ivoire. This trial, however, concerned only offenses against the state, not the killings and rape that constitute the basis of crimes against humanity charges that she faces at the ICC.

In May, the ICC dismissed the Ivorian government’s appeal of the pre-trial chamber’s decision. Côte d’Ivoire remains obliged to hand Simone Gbagbo over to the ICC.

  1. What happened in Côte d’Ivoire?

In December 2010, Gbagbo refused to step down when the Independent Electoral Commission and international observers proclaimed his rival, Ouattara, the winner of the November 28, 2010 presidential runoff. In the resulting five months of violence and armed conflict, at least 3,000 people were killed and more than 150 women raped, with armed forces on both sides targeting civilians according to political—and at times, ethnic and religious—affiliation.

Elite security force units closely linked to Gbagbo abducted neighborhood political leaders associated with Ouattara’s coalition, dragging them away from restaurants or out of their homes into waiting vehicles. Family members later found the victims’ bodies in morgues, riddled with bullets.

Pro-Gbagbo militias at informal checkpoints throughout Abidjan murdered scores of real or perceived Ouattara supporters, beating them to death with bricks, executing them by gunshot at point-blank range, or burning them alive. The Pro-Gbagbo security forces and militia groups targeted and often gang-raped women active in mobilizing voters—or who merely wore pro-Ouattara t-shirts. In the western part of the country, Gbagbo militiamen and allied Liberian mercenaries killed hundreds of people, choosing many of their victims solely on the basis of their ethnicity.

Abuses by pro-Ouattara forces reached a comparable level after they began a military offensive in March 2011 aimed at taking control of the country. In village after village in the far west, members of the Republican Forces loyal to Ouattara killed civilians from ethnic groups associated with Gbagbo, including elderly people who were unable to flee; raped women; and burned villages to the ground. In Duékoué, a western town, Republican Forces soldiers and allied militias massacred several hundred people, pulling unarmed men from ethnic groups associated with pro-Gbagbo militias out of their homes and executing them. Later, during the military campaign to take over and consolidate control of Abidjan, the Republican Forces again executed scores of men from ethnic groups aligned with Gbagbo—at times in detention sites—and tortured others.

By the conflict’s end, Human Rights Watch, a UN commission of inquiry, the International Federation of Human Rights, Amnesty International, and an Ivorian coalition of human rights organizations had documented war crimes and likely crimes against humanity by both sides. In August 2012, a national commission of inquiry established by President Ouattara released a report that also documented grave crimes by forces on both sides, including torture and hundreds of summary executions.

  1. Will the ICC take action on abuses by pro-Ouattara forces?

While the ICC prosecutor has repeatedly stressed her office’s impartiality, the ICC has not brought any charges against suspects on the Ouattara side. Court staff have explained that a focus on finalizing the cases against Gbagbo and Blé Goudé, as well as resource constraints, have affected its ability to make progress in the investigation into pro-Ouattara forces. In 2015, the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, indicated that she planned to step up the pace of investigations into crimes by commanders affiliated with Ouattara. It is unclear how the 2016 budget for the Office of the Prosecutor, which received fewer resources than requested, will affect these investigations.

Court staff have said that the Office of the Prosecutor’s decision to move forward initially only against Gbagbo-allied forces resulted from its ability to prepare that case quickly, given the availability of key evidence and insider witnesses. In the face of uncertainty as to whether the opportunity for Gbagbo’s surrender would last, and based on the information available to it at the time, the prosecutor’s office decided that it was better to go forward to secure the case it had.

The decision to move forward initially on only one side of the conflict is questionable, however. Removing Gbagbo from the Ivorian political scene was something the Ivorian government wanted desperately. Yet rather than pursue cases against both sides simultaneously and use Gbagbo’s surrender to The Hague as a way to ensure cooperation on cases against pro-Ouattara forces as well, the prosecution’s sequenced approach and the quick surrender of Gbagbo—depriving the prosecutor of a point of key leverage with the government—instead allowed the government to drag its feet in cooperating with the ICC. The now explicit failure to cooperate in the ICC request to surrender Gbagbo’s wife, Simone, is one example.

The ICC’s work in Côte d’Ivoire was further complicated by President Ouattara’s statements. In April 2015, Ouattara said that he would not transfer any future suspects to the ICC, and that all future trials will occur in national courts. However, although Ivorian judges have recently made progress in investigations, it remains unclear whether Ouattara’s government sufficiently supports the judiciary in bringing those responsible to justice, particularly commanders from pro-Ouattara forces.

The absence of charges against pro-Ouattara forces at the ICC, given the allegations of serious crimes by both sides, has led to a deeply polarized opinion about the ICC within Côte d’Ivoire and has undermined perceptions of the court’s legitimacy. It is vital for the ICC to move forward with investigations into pro-Ouattara forces, to pursue justice for victims, to strengthen its own credibility inside Côte d’Ivoire, and to push for impartial justice at the national level.

  1. How will the people in Côte d’Ivoire know what is happening in The Hague?

The ICC is far from the sites of Gbagbo’s and Blé Goudé’s alleged crimes. The court faces the challenge of making sure that those affected by the crimes, including the victims, understand the court’s proceedings. Gbagbo’s defense requested the opening of trial be held in Abidjan, but the Trial Chamber rejected this request citing, among other things, security considerations.

In light of the distance between proceedings and affected communities, there is an acute need for the ICC to prepare an outreach and communications strategy to ensure that information about the trial is widely transmitted. Redeploying a field-based outreach officer to conduct long-term outreach remains critical to supply information about proceedings in The Hague and counter perceptions of the court’s bias.

While overall the court has very limited resources to conduct outreach, at a minimum the outreach unit should provide regular written updates on proceedings to victims’ associations and the media. It should also, as in other countries in which it has worked, produce audio and video summaries of court proceedings and distribute them to media and civil society partners in Côte d’Ivoire. The court should also consider inviting several Ivorian journalists and human rights groups to The Hague to enhance independent coverage of the opening statements by Ivorian media and monitoring groups.

  1. Why has the ICC process against Gbagbo and Blé Goudé taken so long?

In February 2013, the Pre-Trial Chamber heard evidence against Gbagbo to determine whether to confirm the charges against him. In June 2013, a majority of pre-trial chamber judges found that the prosecution had failed to put forward enough evidence to support the charges. Instead of dismissing the case, the judges gave the prosecution more time to investigate and provided a list of areas requiring further evidence. In June 2014, after reviewing additional evidence submitted by the prosecution, a majority of pre-trial chamber judges confirmed the charges against Gbagbo.

In December 2014, the pre-trial chamber confirmed charges against Blé Goudé. After joining their cases in March 2015, the Trial Chamber pushed back the start of the trial to November 10.

The trial date was postponed again in late October 2015 following a request by Gbagbo’s defense team to the ICC judges to assess Gbagbo’s fitness to participate in the trial. In November, the trial chamber heard submissions by the prosecution and defense and concluded, based on the unanimous opinion of three medical experts, that Gbagbo was fit to stand trial.

8. Who is paying for Gbagbo and Blé Goudé’s defense?

The Registrar of the ICC found both Gbagbo and Blé Goudé to be indigent, which means that the ICC is paying for their respective defense teams under the court’s legal aid scheme. This is subject to change, however, if the court’s register determines that either defendant has the means to pay for their defense.

  1. Can victims participate in the trial?

The Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document, put in place an innovative system of victim participation for the first time before an international criminal tribunal. Under the provisions, victims of the alleged crimes can present their “views and concerns” to the court during Gbagbo’s trial. The court has authorized over 700 applicants to participate. Victim participation is an important feature of the ICC that can contribute to bridging the gap between victims and a court located thousands of kilometers from where the crimes were committed.

As participants, victims have standing in their own right, although few will appear before the court in person. This is a different role than appearing as witnesses called by the Office of the Prosecutor.

Victims’ interests are instead represented collectively by a lawyer, known as a common legal representative. The Hague-based principal counsel of the Office of Public Counsel for Victims acts as the common legal representative and makes intermittent trips to Côte d’Ivoire to communicate with victims. A member of the legal team is also based in Côte d’Ivoire. The legal representatives for victims will be allowed to make opening statements and to participate in all hearings. They may also question witnesses and present evidence, after obtaining permission from the chamber.

  1. What steps are being taken in Côte d’Ivoire to bring to justice those responsible for human rights crimes during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis?

In 2011, the government created a task force of judges and prosecutors, known as the Special Investigative Cell, since renamed the Special Investigative and Examination Cell, to investigate crimes during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis.

After years of inadequate government support, the Special Cell received increased resources in late 2014, and in 2015 charged more than 20 people—including high-level commanders from both sides of the conflict—for their role in human rights abuses during the post-election crisis. This is a positive—and long overdue—step to bring justice to victims in national courts.

Yet concerns remain about the capacity of Ivorian courts to hold those responsible to account in impartial, independent, and fair proceedings. In June, reports emerged of executive pressure on investigating judges to prematurely close key human rights investigations. Although the investigations ultimately moved forward, remaining concerns include weak judicial independence, the lack of protection for witnesses, judges, and prosecutors, and the absence of a meaningful right of appeal for those convicted of a crime.

Côte d’Ivoire should strengthen key justice institutions so that its courts can deliver credible justice—critical for victims, who deserve effective redress. And to help cement the rule of law in the country.

  1. Is the ICC targeting Africa?

Since it began operations in 2003, the ICC’s investigations have concerned eight African countries. The ICC prosecution is examining a number of situations outside of Africa—including in Palestine—to determine whether to open a formal investigation. Indeed, in 2015, the ICC prosecutor asked the court’s judges for permission to investigate crimes in Georgia.

The ICC’s focus on crimes committed in Africa has led to accusations that it is unjustifiably targeting sitting African leaders for prosecution, particularly following the initiation of ICC cases against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and both the now-president and deputy-president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto.

This criticism is unfair. African countries make up the largest regional block of ICC member countries. In five countries—Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Uganda—the ICC prosecutor began investigations following the request or grant of jurisdiction of the concerned governments. In two other countries—Sudan, for Darfur, and Libya— the ICC prosecutor acted only following a referral on behalf of the international community by the UN Security Council. In Kenya, the ICC prosecutor received the authorization of an ICC pretrial chamber to open investigations.

Some political leaders in Africa have opposed the reach of accountability and have tried to distort the court’s mission by depicting it as a neo-colonialist tool.

At the same time, however, international justice has been applied unevenly. Powerful countries and their allies have often evaded justice when serious crimes are committed on their territories. This is due partly to the failure of some countries to join the ICC and the role of the UN Security Council in determining which situations to refer to the ICC when serious crimes are committed in countries that are not ICC members. Human Rights Watch campaigns for justice wherever serious crimes are committed, irrespective of political considerations.


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