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Ivory Coast: Calls for More Prosecutions

With ex-president before Hague court, more alleged perpetrators from both sides of conflict must be pursued, commentators say.
By Kris Kotarski
  • Former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo appears at the International Criminal Court, December 5, 2011. (Photo: ICC-CPI/AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
    Former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo appears at the International Criminal Court, December 5, 2011. (Photo: ICC-CPI/AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Following the transfer of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo to The Hague last month, international justice experts are urging the International Criminal Court, ICC as well as the national authorities to follow up on pledges to investigate individuals on both sides of the 2010-11 conflict.

Some 3,000 people were killed in fighting following the presidential election of November 2010, when a defeated Gbagbo refused to concede power to his presidential rival, Alassane Ouattara. ICC judges have found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that forces loyal to Gbagbo attacked the civilian population in the port city of Abidjan and in the west of the country.

The fighting subsided with Gbagbo’s capture in April this year .

He appeared before the ICC on December 5, charged with four counts of crimes against humanity including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts during the period when he refused to hand over power.

The 25-minute hearing in front of presiding Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi of Argentina marked the first time that a former head of state has appeared in front of the permanent war crimes court since its inception in 2002.

Gbagbo will face a confirmation of charges hearing next June, when prosecutors must convince judges they have enough evidence to bring him to trial.

Experts warn that failing to administer justice comprehensively and even-handedly is likely to aggravate the tensions surrounding a parliamentary election held on December 11 this year, which was boycotted by members of Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front, FPI.

“The ICC's success in Côte d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast] will ultimately be determined by its willingness to prosecute individuals from both sides — not only the side that is now out of power,” said Matt Wells, an Africa researcher with the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, who co-authored a recent report on the 2010 violence.

“Gbagbo's transfer is an important step toward accountability, but victims of crimes by pro-Ouattara forces remain without justice at home and abroad. If the ICC is to play a successful role in Côte d'Ivoire's return to rule of law, it needs to show that both the victors and the defeated must answer for grave crimes.”

Early results from the parliamentary election give Ouattara's Republican Assembly party, RDR, at least 123 seats in the 255-seat National Assembly. while its main ally, the Ivory Coast Democratic Party, PDCI, took 93.

The low turnout in these polls stands in stark contrast to last November’s disputed election, in which about 80 per cent of the electorate took part.

A spokesman for Gbagbo, Justin Kone Katinan, labelled this year’s poor turnout a “silent revolt”.

Observers warn that Ouattara will lose legitimacy if those of his supporters accused of perpetrating mass violence are not brought to book.

“The prosecutions within Côte d'Ivoire for crimes committed during the post-election period remain one-sided, with at least 120 charged from the Gbagbo camp and no one charged from the pro-Ouattara forces,” Wells said. “While the Ivorian government continues to promise impartial justice and refers to ongoing investigations, the reality looks like victors’ justice. To end the impunity that has fuelled the decade of violence in Côte d'Ivoire, President Ouattara must quickly show that his forces are not above the law.”

During an October visit to Abidjan, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, promised to investigate crimes on all sides of the conflict. He hinted that up to six people will be investigation for possible involvement in post-election atrocities.

Some observers are concerned about the wider political effects that the ICC’s indictment of Gbagbo could have on Ivory Coast.

Mike McGovern, assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University and author of “Making War in Côte d'Ivoire”, worries that the timing of Gbagbo’s recent transfer to the ICC may have harmed the delicate reconciliation process in the war-torn country.

“Someone like Ocampo will say that this is about justice, [and the ICC founding treaty] the Rome Statute. And this is true. But immediate politics in [Ivory Coast] is also important,” McGovern said. “If the perception is out there that Ouattara is excluding his political opponents with the collusion of outside actors, then his legitimacy will suffer. There were very serious crimes, and if there is a sense that there is victors’ justice, then the tensions will only rise.”

The transfer of Gbagbo to the ICC has infuriated his FPI supporters, who called his arrest a “political kidnapping” and threatened to withdraw from the ongoing process of reconciliation.

Shortly after his arrest, a party statement called on supporters to “regroup for imminent action”. While there has been no resurgence of mass violence, the government of Ivory Coast reports that at least five people were killed in the run-up to the December 11 ballot.

In the most serious incident, on December 7, three people were killed and three others wounded when a rocket was fired at a residential compound near a PDCI rally in the southern town of Grand-Lahou. The party is part of the coalition supporting Ouattara.

Junior defence minister Paul Koffi Koffi also told the press that a candidate from Ouattara's RDR party was burnt to death and a young villager killed in separate incidents.

As well as ensuring justice is administered for atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict, experts say reforming the security sector is key to long-term stability in Ivory Coast.

Cote d’Ivoire was torn apart by armed conflict in 2002 when a mutiny grew into a full-scale rebellion that split the country in two. The army loyal to Gbagbo controlled the south, and the Forces Nouvelles, loyal to Guillaume Soro, an Ouattara ally who is now prime minister, controlled the north.

Despite a continuing United Nations peacekeeping mission and an arms embargo established in 2004, as well as peace agreements signed in 2005 and 2007, the tensions have never been resolved.

Divisions within the security forces are seen as being at the root of the 2010 crisis. Efforts to unify the rival military forces are crucial to long term stability, analysts say.

“The objective is to go from a country that had two armies to a country with one army and one police command,” said Arthur Boutellis, a senior policy analyst at the International Peace Institute and author of “The Security Sector in Côte d'Ivoire: A Source of Conflict and a Key to Peace”.

Integration will be difficult to achieve because military affiliation and easy access to weapons are a way of earning a living for many, especially in the north.

If one side only is demobilised and not the other, that will only serve to jeopardise security, Boutellis warned.

“Progressive downsizing of the military is necessary for stability,” Boutellis said. “They need a large development plan for all of the country, and there needs to be a demilitarisation of their entire society – not just of guns, but of minds.”

Despite the huge challenges, Boutellis says, the reconciliation process since the violence around the 2010 election has been a lot more successful in the security forces than it has in the wider political sphere.

Former rival units, while not formerly integrated into the same force, have been brought together under a single command structure.

“That is the first step,” Boutellis said. “And Ouattara has been successful in reintegrating the command. In each core of the army, if the number one is from one side, the number two [is] from the other.”

However, progress has been fragile, and the ICC indictment against Gbagbo plus pressure on Ouattara to indict combatants on his own side have created a difficult dynamic.

Prior to the 2010 election, Ouattara forged an alliance with the Forces Nouvelles. This relationship would be at risk if he initiated criminal investigations against soldiers from the force – potentially weakening his grip on power.

“Prosecuting [fighters who supported him] would be very difficult, especially since some of the Forces Nouvelles people are now in very key positions,” Boutellis said. “[Ouattara] owes a lot to a lot of these people.”

Prime Minister Soro also political ambitions, which would not be helped by making alienating the security services aligned with him.

“So far things have held together,” Boutellis said. “However, an attempt at the politicisation of sections of the security services and a coup can never be ruled out.”

The final piece in the jigsaw is economic development, which could help ease political tensions and reduce the powerful role of armed forces.

“The priority is the economic side of the equation, and this will be the sine qua non condition for keeping people demobilised and keeping the youth occupied,” Boutellis said. “Luckily, Côte d’Ivoire is not Burundi or Sierra Leone, so there is a lot of room for economic growth to make this dynamic simpler.”

Kris Kotarski is an IWPR contributor in The Hague.

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