UN report says at least 400 people died in political violence

Between 400 and 500 people were killed and thousands wounded in Togo during political violence earlier this year and state authorities must shoulder most of the blame, the United Nations said on Monday.

In a long-awaited report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, referred to "the massive nature and gravity of human rights violations as evidenced by the high number of victims -- between 400 and 500 dead and thousands wounded."

Previous estimates of the death toll had ranged from the Interior Ministry's 69, to Western diplomats saying that more than 100 people had been killed and the Togolese League of Human Rights putting the number of dead at more than 800.

Violence first erupted in this tiny West African nation in February when the death of President Gnassingbe Eyadema brought his 38-year rule to a sudden end and prompted his son Faure Gnassingbe to seize power.

In the face of international condemnation, Gnassingbe agreed to step down and hold elections. He eventually won the ballot but the opposition denounced the polls as rigged, and more widespread violence ensued, sending thousands of Togolese fleeing east to Benin and west to Ghana to seek refuge.

"The country has regularly experienced cycles of violence as different electoral processes have been carried out. But with the election on 24 April 2005, the violence seemed to reach a degree never seen before," Arbour said in her 49-page report, written on the basis of a visit by her agency to Togo in mid June.

"The principal responsibility for the political violence and the violations of human rights (resided with) the state security apparatus," she said. "The reactions of the security forces were excessive in relation to the demonstrations and actions of the opposition militants."

The majority of victims were killed in their own homes, the report said.

It also cited credible evidence that there had been commando units within the army who had been primed "not only to crush the demonstrators and militants but also to round up the corpses and systematically dispose of them so that they could not be counted."

Reinforcements had been bussed in from the north -- the bastion of support for the father-to-son political transition. Some soldiers had been given civilian clothes and paid to work undercover with machetes and cudgels.

Torture and inhumane treatment had also been widely deployed during the unrest, the UN human rights chief said.

Government tight-lipped, opposition calls for change

Togo's Communications Minister and government spokesman, Kokou Tozoun, had no immediate comment on the UN report when contacted by IRIN on Monday.

But on the official government website www.republicoftogo.com, an unsigned editorial dismissed the UN findings.

"The U.N. report seems a slapdash affair with hasty conclusions," it said. "We are allowed to doubt the seriousness of the inquiry."

President Faure Gnassingbe

The opposition, meanwhile, seized on the findings as evidence of the current government's illegitimacy.

"500 deaths so that the election of one person would be accepted!" said Jean-Pierre Fabre, the secretary-general of the main opposition party, the Union of Forces for Change (UFC).

"A regime which installs itself by massacring innocent people cannot have any legitimacy and we cannot accept it," he told IRIN.

However, while the UN report laid the bulk of the responsibility at the state's door, the opposition activists did not escape criticism.

"Their responsibility cannot be put to one side," Arbour said.

Opposition groups carried out serious acts of violence that took numerous victims and looted and destroyed property belonging to suspected members of ruling party, the report said.

Arbour also took aim at the leaders of the opposition parties.

"The main consequence of their lack of global strategy and coordination, notably at the start of the crisis, was that their militants were not contained," she said.

End the political impasse

The UN human rights chief also noted the current political impasse in Togo. Although the new government that took office in June sported some faces from outside the ruling party, most opposition leaders refused to join.

Arbour urged the Togolese authorities to reopen negotiations with the opposition and civil society groups to try to form a so-called government of national unity.



However on Monday, the main UFC opposition party said it was not in a mood to negotiate.

"We continue to say that there need to be new elections," Fabre said.

Arbour suggested that the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States should also send a new mission to Togo to "underline.... their determination to finding a solution to the country's crisis".

On human rights reforms, she called on Gnassingbe to make his national commission of inquiry more credible by opening it up to representatives from non-governmental organisations involved in human rights work, and ensuring its members were independent from the ruling party.

The Togolese army, long the preserve of the ruling family's Kabiye ethnic group, also needed overhauling, Arbour said.

"This reform, under the supervision of the United Nations, should aim to transform the army at its roots into an... apolitical army, representative of the cultural and ethnic diversity of Togolese society and one that respects human rights," she said.

The Togolese League of Human Rights welcomed the UN findings and called on the government to end the culture of impunity in Togo.

"The authorities must wake up to the catastrophic state of human rights in Togo, and things need to get going to improve the situation," Togo Ata Apedo Amah, the secretary-general of the group, told IRIN.

"We cannot live perpetually in a situation where anyone is allowed to do anything because he has a gun in his hand."