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I. Summary

A nation divided, Côte d’Ivoire continues to experience the most serious political and military crisis in its post-independence history.  For over three-and-a-half years, Côte d’Ivoire has effectively been split between the government-controlled south and rebel-held north, with a buffer zone in between patrolled by United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers and French troops.  Peace has proven elusive, and a succession of political agreements have failed to move beyond a “no peace no war” stalemate. There have been recent signs of a political détente, such as the first meeting between the five main leaders in Ivorian politics—President Laurent Gbagbo, Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, New Forces leader Guillaume Soro, and opposition leaders Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Ouattara—on Ivorian soil since the beginning of the crisis.1 But the human rights fallout from the crisis for ordinary individuals living on both sides of the political-military divide continues to be devastating.

Impunity has taken firm root on Ivorian soil. Neither the government, the leadership of the rebel New Forces, nor the international community has taken meaningful steps to bring to justice those responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Côte d’Ivoire.  This failure has provided a favorable environment for increasingly entrenched lawlessness in which impunity prevails.2

This report describes human rights abuses against civilians by state security forces, militia forces and by the New Forces during the period of November 2005 to March 2006, and serves to illustrate the human cost of the failure to address impunity and lawlessness in Côte d’Ivoire. 

In the government-controlled south, recent episodes of heightened political tension brought a repeat of the pattern of abuse, familiar since the start of Cote d’Ivoire’s current crisis, whereby nationals of neighboring states and Ivorians from the north of the country are targeted for abuse by government forces or pro-government militias, on the basis of suspicions that they support the northern rebels. After an attack by unidentified assailants on an Abidjan military base in early January 2006, security forces rounded up dozens of individuals of northern origin, severely beat them over the course of three days, and then released them without any judicial process or explanation for their detention. In another incident around the same time, three individuals from Burkina Faso were allegedly summarily executed by members of the Ivorian security forces. During rioting that took place in Abidjan about two weeks later, government security forces seized, detained and tortured at least seven individuals of both Malian and northern Ivorian origin.  One of the victims was tortured to death.3

In the south, state security forces are buttressed by government-supported militias, such as the Young Patriots (Jeunes Patriotes), that regularly harass and intimidate the populace, particularly persons believed to be sympathetic to the New Forces rebels or the political opposition.  In January 2006, these militia forces directed their violence against United Nations and humanitarian personnel and installations, leading to heavy material losses and the near-total paralysis of Abidjan.  The violence and associated incitement also forced the retreat of the United Nations and humanitarian personnel from those parts of western Côte d’Ivoire where, due to the presence of thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees, civilian protection is most needed.

As an ongoing phenomenon, in government-controlled areas members of the security forces prey on individuals by extorting, robbing, and, at times, beating the civilians they are entrusted to protect. These abuses typically take place under the guise of routine security checks during which police and gendarmes inspect the identity papers of individuals they stop at road blocks, in markets or in other public places. While this affects all those traveling through the south, its impact is most keenly felt by those communities suspected of supporting the rebels. In the rebel-held north, a similar but less targeted phenomenon prevails, with the New Forces continuing to extort money from civilians at all levels of society by threat, intimidation, or outright use of force. 

Moreover, with no functioning judicial system within the zone administered by the New Forces, arbitrary arrests and the imposition of custodial “sentences” on questionable legal authority continue to occur in the north with no independent judicial or executive checks.

The international community has consistently sidelined initiatives designed to combat impunity in Côte d’Ivoire presumably due to a fear of upsetting negotiation efforts to end the political and military stalemate.  For example, the international community has been tepid in its implementation of a U.N. Security Council resolution providing for sanctions against persons implicated in human rights abuses, and in pressing for prosecutions. While the Security Council recently activated travel and economic sanctions against a total of three individuals from the Young Patriots and New Forces, this only occurred after the United Nations itself was the object of attack in January 2006. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry report relating to serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law since September 19, 2002, was submitted to the U.N. Security Council in December 2004, yet still awaits public release or discussion by the Security Council. Release of the report and debate on it, especially its recommendations, would likely generate needed discussion about how to tackle impunity in Côte d’Ivoire.

Continuing violations of the type described in this report, and the impunity which underpins them, raise serious concerns about the potential for peaceful elections later this year. Unless measures to combat impunity are taken now, there could be a repeat of the experience during the 2000 presidential and parliamentary elections, when political, ethnic, and religious violence resulted in hundreds dead and injured.4 Such measures, including wider application of travel and economic sanctions, and prompt dispatch of a mission to Côte d’Ivoire by the International Criminal Court, would send a strong signal that the era of impunity in Côte d’Ivoire must be brought to an end and that further violence and abuses, including any committed in the lead up to elections, will not go unpunished. 

This report is based on Human Rights Watch interviews in Côte d’Ivoire in March 2006 with victims and eyewitnesses of human rights abuses, along with officials from the Ivorian security forces, the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (ONUCI), members of the New Forces leadership, local government officials, militia leaders, representatives from local and international non-governmental organizations, journalists, and diplomats.

[1] The meetings were held on February 28, 2006, in Yamoussoukro, see “Côte d’Ivoire: In groundbreaking talks, faction leaders recommit to peace,” IRIN, March 1, 2006, [online]

[2] For earlier Human Rights Watch comment on the reluctance of the international community to address the growing problem of impunity see "Côte d’Ivoire: The Human Rights Cost of the Political Impasse," A Human Rights Watch Report, December 21, 2005, [online]  For an analysis of the human rights costs of the proliferation of militias, and the government’s use of hate speech that incites violence, see “Country on a Precipice: The Precarious State of Human Rights and Civilian Protection in Côte d’Ivoire,” A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 17, No. 6 (A), May 2005, [online] 

[3] For a survey of the widespread abuses against civilians that similarly followed a September 2002 army mutiny, see Human Rights Watch, “Trapped Between Two Wars: Violence Against Civilians in Western Cote d’Ivoire,”  A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 15, No. 14 (A), August 2003, [online]

[4] See Human Rights Watch, “The New Racism; The Political Manipulation of Ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire,” A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 13, No.6 (A), August 2001, [online]

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