Forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara killed hundreds of civilians, raped more than 20 alleged supporters of his rival, Laurent Gbagbo, and burned at least 10 villages in Côte d’Ivoire’s far western region, Human Rights Watch said. Forces loyal to Gbagbo killed more than 100 presumed Ouattara supporters as Ouattara’s forces advanced in their March campaign. Upon taking power, Ouattara should urgently open a credible and impartial investigation into serious abuses by both sides and ensure that those responsible at all levels are brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said.
People interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how, in village after village, pro-Ouattara forces, now called the Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire, FRCI), summarily executed and raped perceived Gbagbo supporters in their homes, as they worked in the fields, as they fled, or as they tried to hide in the bush. The fighters often targeted people by ethnicity, and the attacks disproportionally affected those too old or feeble to flee.
“Killing and raping civilians is no way for Ouattara’s forces to end this conflict,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Ouattara should fulfill his public pledge to investigate and prosecute abuses by both sides if Côte d’Ivoire is to emerge from this horrific period.”
In one particularly horrific incident, hundreds of ethnic Guéré civilians perceived as supporting Gbagbo were massacred in the western town of Duékoué by a mixture of pro-Ouattara groups, including Republican Forces under the overall command of Ouattara’s prime minister, Guillaume Soro.
Three Human Rights Watch researchers conducted investigations in the Grand Gedeh region of Liberia between March 26 and April 7, interviewing over 120 victims of and witnesses to human rights abuses committed by both sides’ forces in the far western region of Côte d’Ivoire. More than 40,000 Ivorians have fled to Grand Gedeh as a result of the fighting. Human Rights Watch also interviewed some 20 victims and witnesses still in the far west towns of Guiglo, Duékoué, and Bloléquin by telephone.
The abuses documented by Human Rights Watch occurred from March 6 to 30, 2011, as the western towns of Toulepleu, Doké, Bloléquin, Duékoué, and Guiglo, all formerly controlled by pro-Gbagbo forces, fell to the pro-Ouattara forces seeking to force Gbagbo from the presidency. He has rejected calls to step down after an election Ouattara is internationally recognized to have won.
Ouattara’s Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire comprise a loose coalition of combatants who previously fought for the Forces Nouvelles (“New Forces”) rebellion, the long-time rebel army led by Soro that has controlled the northern half of the country since late 2002. The Republican Forces also include former Ivorian army soldiers, policemen, and gendarmes who have recently defected from Gbagbo’s side.
In village after village investigated by Human Rights Watch, Republican Forces combatants killed, raped, and pillaged the predominantly Guéré population. The Guéré are originally from western Côte d’Ivoire and largely supported Gbagbo in last year’s election. A 47-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that she looked on as two fighters killed her father, husband, and 10-year-old son around the family’s cocoa farm near Doké. A 32-year-old man described pro-Ouattara forces entering Diboké and opening fire on civilians as they ran out to see which side’s forces had entered, killing at least three people right in front of him. In at least 10 villages around Toulepleu and Bloléquin, villagers said they hid in the bush and watched as the Republican Forces set fire to houses and buildings used to store crops and seeds, slaughtered animals, and stole everything of value.
Many residents fled in anticipation of or immediately upon the arrival of pro-Ouattara forces. Others, particularly some elderly residents who were unable to undertake the 40 or more kilometer walk to neighboring Liberia, were caught by the Republican Forces and held captive in their villages. Human Rights Watch documented the execution of more than 30 of these detained civilians. One 67-year-old woman described pro-Ouattara fighters taking several captives out each day – often men and women between 60 and 80 years old – and executing them at point-blank range.
Dozens of women were also detained for a day or longer and repeatedly raped. One woman from Bakoubli, near Toulepleu, said the forces raped her in front of her children, then killed her husband who tried to intervene.
The month-long onslaught of abuses against Guéré civilians in the far west, which began in late February, culminated in the massacre of hundreds in the town of Duékoué on March 29. After securing the town that morning, fighters from the Republican Forces – accompanied by two pro-Ouattara militia groups – proceeded to the Gbagbo-stronghold neighborhood of Carrefour. Eight women told Human Rights Watch that pro-Ouattara forces dragged men, young and old, out of their homes and executed them with machetes and guns in the street, sometimes with multiple rounds of bullets. While committing the often gruesome killings, some attackers threatened “to kill the Guéré until the last one” because of their support for Gbagbo. One witness told Human Rights Watch that the Republican Forces abducted a carload of boys, including her younger brother, and shouted that they would be taken to the town of Man – the former Forces Nouvelles base in the far west – to “become soldiers.”
Human Rights Watch also found evidence of ongoing atrocities by pro-Gbagbo forces including the March 28 massacre in Bloléquin of more than 100 men, women, and children from northern Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring West African countries; the March 29 killing of another 10 northerners and West African immigrants in the town of Guiglo; and the mid-March killing of eight Togolese in a village just outside Bloléquin.
“To understand the tragic events in Côte d’Ivoire, a line cannot be drawn between north and south, or supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara,” Bekele said. “Unfortunately, there are those on both sides who have shown little regard for the dignity of human life.”
Both pro-Ouattara and pro-Gbagbo forces are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, for a non-international armed conflict, as found in the Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international law. Prohibited acts include killings, rape, torture, and mutilation of civilians and captured combatants, collective punishment, recruitment and use of child soldiers and pillage.
Anyone who participates in, orders, or has command responsibility for serious laws-of-war violations committed with criminal intent may be prosecuted for war crimes. Serious crimes, including murder and rape, committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, such as a political or ethnic group, may be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. States have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on their territory, or ensure that individuals implicated are prosecuted in another venue.
Human Rights Watch called on Ouattara to take decisive measures to address serious violations of international law by all forces, prevent further reprisals and acts of collective punishment, and urgently investigate and prosecute all those responsible for abuses to bring to an end Côte d’Ivoire’s longstanding cycle of impunity.
“While the international community has been focused on the political stalemate in Abidjan over the presidency, forces on both sides have committed numerous atrocities against civilians, their leaders showing little interest in reining them in,” Bekele said. “Ouattara should send a strong message to Guillaume Soro and the Republican Forces that such abuses will be fully punished at home or by an international tribunal.”