A convoy of United Nation peacekeepers are seen outside Bouake during an army mutiny in which disgruntled Ivorian soldiers seized control of the city. January 6, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
(Abidjan) – As the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) comes to an end on June 30, 2017, the Ivorian government should redouble its efforts to address the serious rights issues at the root of past political violence, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Ivorian Movement for Human Rights (MIDH) and the Ivorian League for Human Rights (LIDHO) said today.

Côte d’Ivoire has enjoyed more than six years of relative peace and security since a devastating post-election crisis in 2010-2011. But the government’s inadequate progress in addressing a longstanding culture of impunity, reforming the security forces, and strengthening rule of law institutions threaten the country’s long-term prospects for peace and development.

“Côte d’Ivoire has distanced itself from the violence and conflict that blighted so many lives and tore communities apart, but it’s too early to say whether the recovery is sustainable,” said Drissa Traore, Vice-President of FIDH. “The peace dividends that the United Nations has contributed to could be reversed unless the Ivorian government addresses pervasive immunity and the army’s lack of discipline.”

Beginning with the deadly clashes that followed the 2000 presidential election and later the 2002-2003 armed conflict, international and Ivorian human rights groups have documented abuses committed during the political and inter-ethnic violence that haunted Côte d’Ivoire until the conclusion of the 2010-2011 post-election crisis. A decade of conflict and instability was punctuated by horrendous human rights violations, including widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, and targeted sexual violence by government forces, government-linked militia, student groups, and rebel forces alike.

The UN mission was established in April 2004 to monitor a cease-fire agreement after the 2002-2003 armed conflict, with peacekeepers monitoring a “zone of confidence” that separated the government-controlled south from the rebel-held north. This stalemate continued until the 2007 Ouagadougou peace accords, which set the stage for presidential elections in 2010 and, in the aftermath, the 2010-2011 post-election crisis.

Aïchatou Mindaoudou, the UN secretary-general’s special representative and head of the peacekeeping mission, said in June that “demonstrable progress has been made on all fronts.” The UN rightly cites peaceful 2015 presidential elections and 2016 legislative elections as evidence of improved security. And a 2016 constitutional referendum removed a divisive nationality clause that had fueled decades of ethnic and political tensions, although the vote was criticized for its lack of transparency.

Despite this progress, the government of President Alassane Ouattara has not fully addressed key human rights issues that have contributed to past political violence and conflict.

During the decade of unrest that culminated in the 2010-2011 post-election crisis, the culture of impunity that allowed those responsible for atrocities to escape justice was a key factor in perpetuating abuses. Former President Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé, a former militia leader, are on trial before the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. And yet, the vast majority of the commanders and leaders implicated in a decade of serious human rights violations – on both sides of the military-political divide – have not been held to account.

The Ivorian government has made some progress in strengthening the justice system following years of neglect. But the deeply flawed trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes of former first lady Simone Gbagbo raises doubts about the Ivorian justice system’s ability to fairly and effectively try serious human rights cases. And the promotion in January of several army commanders suspected of involvement in abuses during the post-election crisis raises concerns about potential political interference in investigations.

The lack of accountability for human rights abuses is indicative of a wider failure to address a longstanding culture of impunity within the army. Mutinies in January and May, in which soldiers seized control of the country’s second largest city and neighborhoods in several other towns, reflect a wider perception that the army is “above the law.”

The peacekeeping mission has conducted extensive training for the security forces, including on compliance with human rights, and the army has reduced human rights abuses by soldiers against civilians. But the government has repeatedly failed to hold soldiers accountable for criminality, from the atrocities of the post-election crisis, to the illicit exploitation of natural resources by army commanders, to checkpoint extortion by rank-and-file soldiers. A March 2016 United Nations Group of Experts report found that former rebel commanders “who occupy key roles in the Ivorian security apparatus, continue to have access to private assets, financial resources and weapons.”

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Yacouba Doumbia, President of MIDH. “The government’s failure to reduce soldiers’ illicit economic activities, and their commanders’ access to private wealth and weapons, makes it more difficult to hold them accountable for other abuses.”

The discovery by mutinying soldiers in May of an arms cache in Bouake underscored the failure of Côte d’Ivoire’s disarmament process to secure weapons hidden in private arsenals. The government has opened a judicial investigation and said it will seek to locate arms hidden in other locations.

Many of the underlying tensions that drove past ethnic violence also remain unresolved, notably an incomplete national reconciliation process and continued competition over land. Although land conflicts may have gradually become less prevalent, they remain a key driver of local violence, as illustrated by intercommunal clashes in March 2016 in Bouna that killed dozens of people and displaced thousands more. At the same time, as it moves forward with implementation of a 1998 land law, the government should strengthen local government capacity to find fair and durable rights-based solutions to tensions over land.

The peacekeepers’ departure, and the recent mutinies, underscore the need to intensify efforts to address longstanding impunity and professionalize the security forces. This should include a strengthened military justice system and improved internal military disciplinary mechanisms.

The authorities should also follow through on the promise to prosecute individuals – including members of the security forces – implicated in atrocities during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis. This requires the government to provide the judiciary with adequate support to complete their investigations, as well as to finish the exhumation of victims in western Côte d’Ivoire. Holding accountable high-level perpetrators, including those who fought for Ouattara during the crisis, would send the message that those who resort to violence and human rights abuses in moments of political tension will face the consequences.

“With the UN peacekeeping mission’s departure, Côte d’Ivoire’s government now bears the sole responsibility for addressing the human rights challenges that threaten long-term stability,” said Jim Wormington, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This means tackling impunity and addressing the root causes of political and ethnic tensions.”