The three-month campaign of organized violence by security forces under the control of Laurent Gbagbo and militias that support him gives every indication of amounting to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today. A new Human Rights Watch investigation in Abidjan indicates that the pro-Gbagbo forces are increasingly targeting immigrants from neighboring West African countries in their relentless attacks against real and perceived supporters of Alassane Ouattara, who is internationally recognized as having won the November 2010 presidential election.
The crisis has escalated since the end of February 2011, with clashes between armed forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara in the western and central regions of the country, as well as in Abidjan, the financial capital. Armed combatants have committed war crimes, including executions of detainees and targeted killings of civilians and destruction of their property, Human Rights Watch said. The killing of civilians by pro-Ouattara forces, at times with apparent ethnic or political motivation, also risks becoming crimes against humanity should they become widespread or systematic. No one has been held accountable for the attacks, which have left hundreds dead, and neither side has even publicly denounced abuses by its own forces.
“The time is long overdue for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Gbagbo and his allies directly implicated in the grave abuses of the post-election period,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community should also send a clear message to Ouattara’s camp that reprisal killings will place them next on the list.”
As the level of violence escalates on both sides, United Nations and French peacekeepers need to take all necessary measures within their mandates to protect civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
On March 10, the African Union Peace and Security Council confirmed previous African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), UN, and EU determinations recognizing Ouattara as the winner of the November 28 presidential elections and called on Gbagbo to step down. Gbagbo’s representatives immediately rejected the AU decision, leaving Côte d’Ivoire on the brink of all-out civil war – with armed clashes between forces of both sides already occurring daily.
During a recent 10-day mission to Côte d’Ivoire focusing on violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Abidjan since mid-February, Human Rights Watch conducted an in-depth investigation, including interviews with over 100 victims and witnesses to grave abuses. The work built on detailed findings from similar fieldwork in mid-January.
Residents from Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Niger gave detailed accounts of daily attacks by pro-Gbagbo security forces and armed militias, who beat foreign residents to death with bricks, clubs, and sticks, or doused them with gas and burned them alive. A Malian man interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how he and six other West Africans were forced into two vehicles by armed militiamen and taken into the basement of an abandoned building. More youths were waiting, who then executed five of the captured West Africans at point-blank range. The homes, stores, and mosques of hundreds of other West Africans have been burned, or they have been chased out of their neighborhoods en masse under threat of death at the hands of pro-Gbagbo militias.
The brunt of these attacks came immediately after Gbagbo’s “youth minister,” Charles Blé Goudé, called publicly on February 25 for “real” Ivoirians to set up roadblocks in their neighborhoods and “denounce” foreigners. The situation threatens to worsen further, as a March 7 letter addressed to the Burkina Faso ambassador by a militant pro-Gbagbo group warned. The letter threatened to “cut the umbilical cord” of the Burkina Faso nationals in Côte d’Ivoire unless they left the country by March 22.
Human Rights Watch also documented the recent enforced disappearances of at least seven active members of Ouattara’s party, as well as the February 25 rape of nine politically active women – the day after fighting between armed forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara broke out in the Abobo area of Abidjan. Pro-Gbagbo forces are using excessive force in response to largely peaceful demonstrations, resulting in at least 25 deaths since February 21 – including seven women killed on March 3 when security forces opened fire with a mounted machine gun and a larger unidentified weapon against thousands of women demonstrators.
The abuses by pro-Gbagbo forces against real and perceived Ouattara supporters have escalated since mid-February. Since the campaign of violence began in early December, witnesses and victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch have consistently implicated the same pro-Gbagbo groups as the principal culprits: the Republican Guard and the Centre de commandement des opérations de sécurité (CECOS), two elite security force units under Gbagbo’s control; and the Young Patriots and FESCI, two violent militia groups long linked to Gbagbo, including through Blé Goudé. Gbagbo’s state television station, Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivorien (RTI), has helped spur the abuses through frequent incitements to violence against UN peacekeepers, West African nationals, and Ouattara supporters – such as Blé Goudé’s call on February 25.
Human Rights Watch believes that Gbagbo and several of his close allies are now implicated in crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court (ICC). The role of Blé Goudé and RTI demonstrates a government policy of encouraging violence, further supported by the refusal of Gbagbo and his military leaders to stop or denounce the recurrent abuses by security forces under their control. The targeted killings, enforced disappearances, politically motivated rapes, and persecution of West African nationals over a three-month period demonstrate a policy of systematic violence by security forces under the control of Gbagbo and militias long loyal to him.
With the deaths of almost 400 civilians documented by the UN – the vast majority killed by pro-Gbagbo forces in circumstances not connected with the armed conflict and with no apparent provocation – the attacks appear to be widespread. Either the widespread nature of attacks or the systematic element is sufficient to trigger the characterization as crimes against humanity when combined with the nature of the crimes documented by Human Rights Watch and others and the fact the crimes appear to be the outcome of deliberate policy of the authorities, amounting to an “attack on a civilian population.”
On the Ouattara side, armed fighters have begun a pattern of extrajudicial executions against alleged pro-Gbagbo combatants detained in Ouattara territory since the Forces Nouvelles (“New Forces” or FN) gained effective control of the Abobo neighborhood and Anyama village around February 26. Human Rights Watch documented 11 such cases from both witnesses and perpetrators – including three detainees who were burned alive and another four whose throats were slit, practices amounting to war crimes under international humanitarian law. Credible reports indicate the death toll may be higher.
In addition, an egregious March 7 attack by pro-Ouattara fighters on a village near Abobo left at least nine dead, an apparent case of collective punishment against real and perceived civilian supporters of Gbagbo.
“For the last decade in Côte d’Ivoire, victims of grave abuses have seen those responsible escape justice time and again,” Bekele said. “Accountability should not be sidelined yet again, lest the patterns of violence repeat themselves.”
On March 14, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, echoed the call of several member states on the Human Rights Council to establish a Commission of Inquiry that would investigate grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law during the post-election period. Any such commission should investigate the key individuals implicated in the crimes committed by both sides, helping to ensure that those responsible are held to account, Human Rights Watch said.
Notably, Côte d’Ivoire is subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC. While it is not a party to the court, Côte d’Ivoire accepted the court’s jurisdiction in 2003 through what is known as an article 12(3) declaration. The Office of the Prosecutor has repeatedly indicated that it will prosecute crimes committed in Côte d’Ivoire if the ICC’s requirements for investigation – which relate to the gravity of the crimes and the inadequacy of national proceedings – are met. An investigation could be triggered by a referral of the situation by the UN Security Council or any state that is party to the court, or if the prosecutor decides to act on his own authority.