The International Criminal Court (ICC) judges took a major step to ensure justice for victims in Côte d’Ivoire by authorizing the ICC prosecutor to open an investigation into crimes committed in the country’s devastating post-election violence, Human Rights Watch said.
In May, Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara asked the ICC to open an investigation into the post-election violence, indicating that Ivorian courts would not be able to prosecute those at the highest levels for the worst crimes committed.
“The ICC judges have taken a critical step so that those who committed the gravest crimes in Côte d’Ivoire are held accountable,” said Elise Keppler, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The court responded to the Ivorian president’s request to open an investigation to ensure justice is done.”
A majority of the judges requested the prosecutor to provide additional information concerning crimes committed between 2002 and 2010 within one month in order to take a decision on whether the investigation should be extended to cover this period.
Serious crimes in violation of international law – including war crimes and likely crimes against humanity – were committed by forces loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo and current president Ouattara between December 2010 and April 2011. Crimes under the ICC’s Rome Statute documented by Human Rights Watch in January, March, April, and June of this year include murder, rape and other sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and intentional attacks against the civilian population.
But the post-election violence capped more than a decade of human rights abuses in Côte d’Ivoire, beginning with the 2000 election violence and the 2002-2003 armed conflict and its aftermath. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and others documented grave violations of international law by forces under the control of Gbagbo and by the former rebel army under the current prime minister, Guillaume Soro, including murder, sexual violence, and the use of child soldiers. No one has been credibly prosecuted for the crimes of this period, and a 2004 UN Commission of Inquiry report on crimes during the 2002-2003 conflict has been kept secret.
“The past decade – not just the last year – were marked by horrific abuses in Côte d’Ivoire,” said Keppler. “The investigation should cover crimes committed prior to the election for the ICC’s involvement to have maximum impact.”
In July, 40 Ivorian civil society groups issued a declaration calling for ICC investigations to look back at crimes committed since 2002.
Even if an ICC investigation covers crimes committed prior to 2010, the ICC prosecutor has so far pursued only a small number of cases in situations under investigation. Human Rights Watch called on donor countries and institutions to help Côte d’Ivoire find the support it needs to pursue impartial, independent, and credible domestic prosecutions of serious crimes that violate international law, in addition to ICC cases.
“Justice for Côte d’Ivoire demands more than ICC prosecutions,” said Keppler. “Fair, effective trials before the domestic courts are also needed. Donors should assist Côte d’Ivoire in this effort, especially to ensure proceedings do not target only the Gbagbo camp.”
Domestic criminal investigations and prosecutions have begun for post-election crimes, but they appear glaringly one-sided. Military and civilian prosecutors have brought charges against at least 118 Gbagbo allies for crimes including murder, rape, and the concealment of bodies. In stark contrast to the prosecution of those from Gbagbo’s side, no member of the armed forces loyal to Ouattara during the conflict has been arrested on charges for crimes committed during that period. The pro-Ouattara forces were known as the Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire during the armed conflict, but, on September 2, the reunited army chose to revert to its previous name, the National Armed Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (FANCI).
Côte d’Ivoire is not a state party to the ICC, but the Ivorian government in 2003 submitted a declaration giving the court jurisdiction for events after September 19, 2002. Ouattara reaffirmed the declaration at the end of 2010. While such declarations provide jurisdiction, they do not trigger an ICC investigation, which requires a referral by an ICC state party, referral by the UN Security Council, or a decision by the prosecutor to act on his initiative.
Human Rights Watch urged the Ivorian government to ratify the court’s Rome Statute to become a party to the court as soon as possible.
The ICC prosecutor submitted a request on June 23, 2011, to open an investigation into crimes committed following the November 2010 presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire. A decision by the ICC prosecutor to act on his own initiative to open an investigation – known as using his propio motu power – requires approval by the ICC judges.