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Côte d’Ivoire: Ending Impunity Key to Resolving Crisis


UN Commission Should Recommend Tribunal to Address Serious Abuses

Human Rights Watch
October 7, 2004

In Cí´te d'Ivoire, both government and rebel forces have been responsible for massacres, sexual violence and recruiting child soldiers, and those most responsible must be held accountable for their crimes, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. When the U.N. commission investigating these atrocities reports to the Secretary-General later this month, it should recommend the creation of a judicial body with significant international participation to address the country's deadly cycle of violence and impunity.

In September the U.N. Commission of Inquiry concluded its investigations into serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Cí´te d'Ivoire. The commission was tasked with investigating abuses committed since September 19, 2002, when northern-based rebels launched an insurgency to unseat the government of President Laurent Gbagbo. The commission's final report to the U.N. Secretary-General should include concrete recommendations on how to hold accountable those individuals most responsible for the abuses, which include massacres, summary executions, political assassinations, sexual violence including rape, and the recruitment and use of child combatants, Human Rights Watch said.

"In Cí´te d'Ivoire, impunity has become order of the day," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division. "Both government forces and rebel factions have murdered hundreds of civilians since the 1999 coup, but neither side has taken steps to punish those responsible."

Cí´te d'Ivoire remains divided even though there has been no relapse into full-scale war since the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement was signed in January 2003. Rebel forces maintain control of the northern and most of the western parts of the country, while the government retains control of the south. Some 4,000 French troops monitor the ceasefire line. The U.N. commission is investigating abuses committed after as well as during the internal armed conflict, which lasted from September 2002 to January 2003.

Two serious incidents in 2004 exemplified the conflict's deadly cycle of violence and impunity. In late March, a protest march by opposition groups in Abidjan was met with lethal force by members of the Ivorian security forces and pro-government militias, resulting in the death of at least 105 civilians. In late June, clashes between rival rebel factions in the northern city of Korhogo led to the deaths of some 100 people, many of whom had been executed or suffocated after being held in a makeshift prison.

"In recent months, government forces have executed civilians in gendarme bases, while rebel factions have executed captured combatants and civilians in makeshift prisons," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The all-around failure to bring those responsible to justice only serves to embolden the perpetrators, which ultimately makes a solution to the political crisis more elusive."

Meanwhile, although the government committed itself to instituting legal reforms as part of at least three peace agreements, it has made little progress in adopting reforms on citizenship for West African immigrants, eligibility to contest presidential elections, and land tenure. The most recent agreement—the Accra III Agreement signed in Ghana on July 30—set October 15 as the starting date for disarmament. However, none of the key reforms have so far been passed by the Ivorian government, and rebels have pledged to hold up disarmament.

Neither the faltering peace process nor the 6,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Operation in Cí´te d'Ivoire (UNOCI) established in April, have been able to facilitate respect for human rights or return to the rule of law. The conflict in Cí´te d'Ivoire threatens to draw in roving combatants from neighboring countries. If this happens, the crisis in Cí´te d'Ivoire would jeopardize the already precarious stability within the region.

Human Rights Watch considers national courts to have primary responsibility for prosecutions of crimes committed within national borders. However, when national justice systems are unwilling or unable to prosecute serious violations of international law, alternative judicial mechanisms must be considered. There are serious concerns about the willingness and ability of the Ivorian national courts to prosecute serious international crimes committed since 1999. The Ivorian government has demonstrated little political will to hold accountable perpetrators within the government or security forces. Within rebel-held areas – thought to comprise at least half of the national territory – there are no legally constituted courts, nor has the rebel leadership established a legitimate judicial authority or shown any political will to try serious crimes in which their commanders or combatants were involved.

Although the Ivorian constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary has been subject to pressure from the executive branch and outside influences, most notably corruption. There are also frequent cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, and extended pre-trial detention without the benefit of public defenders. The security situation in the country remains divided and polarized along ethnic, religious and political party lines, creating huge challenges for the adequate protection of witnesses and court staff.

In its final report, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry should include specific recommendations for holding accountable persons most responsible for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed since 1999. In light of concerns about the Ivorian government's ability and willingness to try these crimes, the commission should ensure that the recommendations include alternative judicial mechanisms, such as an international or mixed national-international tribunal, and that the government lodge an ad hoc declaration accepting the exercise of jurisdiction by the International Criminal Court with the ICC Registrar pursuant to Article 12(3) of the Rome Statute.

Upon receipt of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry's report, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan must present concrete recommendations on possible options for international assistance in support of justice to the Security Council. The Ivorian government and rebels factions must cooperate with any eventual judicial mechanism. Moreover, the government should ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and urge passage of necessary legislation to ensure its implementation.

"Pursuing justice for the most serious international crimes must play a central role in all future peace," said Takirambudde. "Not only should the international community urge all sides in Cí´te d'Ivoire's conflict to cooperate with a judicial means, countries seeking an end to the crisis needs to help ensure that this body receives adequate support."

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