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COTE D'IVOIRE: Briefing on human rights

DAKAR, 15 February 2011 (IRIN) - IRIN has produced a series of briefings exploring the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire triggered by contested elections in November 2010.

With both Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara laying claim to the presidency, the bitter political divisions in the country have led to worsening violence. While regional and international bodies have repeatedly called on Gbagbo to step down, neither sanctions nor mediation initiatives have come close to breaking the deadlock. Gbagbo and Ouattara head rival administrations, both trying to maximize their resources and isolate the other party. IRIN’s series of revised briefings takes a look at the handling of the crisis by the UN, regional bodies the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), western governments, and the European Union (EU), while also looking at the economic, human rights and humanitarian consequences of the breakdown.

Human rights - at the heart of the problem

Both local and international human rights organizations have repeatedly warned of serious patterns of abuse in Côte d’Ivoire in the aftermath of the elections. Incidents documented include: involuntary disappearances, arbitrary detentions, extra-judicial killings, torture and acts of sexual violence. As of 10 February, the UN referred to at least 296 deaths in Côte d’Ivoire as a result of violence witnessed since the elections. But human rights campaigners warn that it is difficult to get comprehensive information, particularly outside Abidjan. The UN has been unable to access two alleged mass grave sites in Abidjan, or follow-up on reports of another mass grave in Issia, 400km northwest of Abidjan. The Issia site’s existence was strongly denied by Gbagbo supporters, who remain adamant that human rights campaigners have seriously exaggerated reported excesses by the security forces while overlooking abuses by Ouattara supporters and military personnel from the former rebels, Forces Nouvelles.

Close to the precipice

Speaking in New York on 19 January, Francis Deng, special adviser to the Secretary-General for the prevention of genocide, and Edward Luck, special adviser on the responsibility to protect, voiced concern about reports of armed forces and militia groups from both sides recruiting and arming ethnic groups allied to each camp. They were also troubled by reports of hate speech that appeared to be aimed at inciting violent attacks against particular ethnic and national groups.

Looking at inter-ethnic clashes in the first weeks of January, Luck noted: “There is a real risk that such clashes could spread across the country and if not checked could culminate in mass atrocities.” Luck warned that “we could be on the brink of something that could be very ugly and destructive,” but stressed that Côte d’Ivoire “had not crossed over the precipice”.

Much of the worst violence documented has been concentrated around specific incidents, for example before, during and after the attempted march on the state broadcaster by Ouattara supporters on 16 December, or during clashes between residents and police in the Abobo District of Abidjan in mid-January. Further deaths were reported after fresh outbreaks of violence in the same part of the city in early February.

Abidjan - attacks and abductions

Following a day 10-day mission to Abidjan in January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a communiqué warning of “a reign of terror” imposed by security forces and militias supporting Gbagbo, the latter including both the Jeunes Patriotes and the radical, pro-Gbagbo student movement, the Fédération Estudiante et Scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire (FESCI). Senior West Africa HRW researcher Corinne Dufka confirmed to IRIN that the level of insecurity and violence in the economic capital had worsened significantly in recent weeks.


IRIN Talks: Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch on testimonies from victims of political violence
HRW’s research pointed to a victimization of supporters of the pro-Ouattara Rassemblement des Houphouetistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP) and a deliberate targeting of West African immigrants from outside Côte d’Ivoire and Ivoirians from the north with Muslim names.

HRW researchers documented the murder of at least 13 men at pro-Gbagbo checkpoints, many of the killings taking place in broad daylight. HRW also documented gang rapes of five women by members of the security services, including that of a 16-year-old girl.

Targeting “non-Ivoirians”

Dufka warned that Burkinabe, Malians and other “non-Ivoirian” residents could face intensified violence if ECOWAS is perceived to be hostile to Gbagbo. “There have been outright statements that legitimize what we would call `collective punishment’ against West Africans. So we are extremely concerned about these patterns and fear that they will intensify as Gbagbo’s government becomes more and more isolated and financially desperate.” HRW has called for the UN to step up patrols in neighbourhoods where militias and security have a strong presence and to invest more in a UN “hotline”, where citizens can pass on details of abuses and concerns about violence.

HRW’s research was confined to Abidjan. Serious, if sporadic outbreaks of violence have been reported in several parts of the interior. The clashes between Guéré and Malinké communities in Duékoué, 500km west of Abidjan, reportedly triggered by the killing of a woman trader, caused at least 30 deaths and forced thousands out of their homes. Serious violence was also reported in Lakota in Sud-Bandam, 200km northwest of Abidjan, in January, following a dispute between Dida and Malinké communities. Parts of the northeast have also witnessed violence, notably Bondoukou in the Zanzan region.

While newspapers backing Ouattara and Gbagbo have given very contradictory accounts of clashes in the interior, there has been little independent investigation of individual episodes. In Duékoué and other areas there have been long-standing inter-communal tensions, often linked to land issues, which appear to have been exacerbated by the post-electoral divisions. For example, Ouattara supporters have tried to mobilize support for the “dead cities” campaign, aimed at paralysing the economy, which has been fiercely opposed by Gbagbo supporters.

Calls for action

UN resolutions and communiqués from regional and international bodies have persistently called for security forces and other groups to show restraint and for a new climate of accountability to be introduced, with those engaging in serious abuses knowing they could face serious penalties ahead, notably through the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN Human Rights Council held a special meeting on Côte d’Ivoire in Geneva on 23 December, including a contribution from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

HRW’s Dufka said it was difficult to know if the concerns raised had made the overall situation less complicated, but acknowledged: “We are pleased that civilian protection and exposing human rights abuses has appeared to be a central feature of the discussion at all levels.” But Dufka also warned: “It’s a very, very serious situation on the ground. Scores of people have been disappeared and killed. Hundreds of others have been detained and abused and in some cases tortured. Numerous women and perhaps men as well, have been sexually abused.”

Journalists detained

Both the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Réporters sans Frontières (RSF) have raised the alarm concerning the detention and alleged torture by the Gbagbo authorities of two Ivoirian journalists, Aboubacar Sanogo and Yayoro Charles Lopez Kangbé, both in custody since 28 January. The journalists were apprehended by military police on arrival in Abidjan on a UN flight from the Forces Nouvelles-held city of Bouaké, where both work for a TV-station controlled by the former rebels.

Sources: ONUCI, UN New York, Human Rights Watch interview, Committee to Protect Journalists, AFP

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Theme (s): Economy, Governance, Human Rights, Refugees/IDPs, Security, Urban Risk,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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