Ivorian militias and Liberian mercenaries loyal to Laurent Gbagbo killed at least 37 West African immigrants in a village near the border with Liberia on March 22, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. In response to the intensifying abuses and descent into civil war, the United Nations Security Council on March 30 imposed strong measures on Gbagbo, the incumbent president, who has refused to step down and cede power to his rival, Alassane Ouattara.
Witnesses in Côte d’Ivoire told Human Rights Watch that armed men, some in uniform and others in civilian clothes, massacred the villagers, presumed to be Ouattara supporters, possibly in retaliation for the capture of nearby areas by pro-Ouattara forces. Several other witnesses described numerous incidents in which real or perceived Ouattara supporters were killed by pro-Gbagbo security forces and militiamen in Abidjan. Ouattara’s troops are spreading south and east, seizing several key towns, including the political capital, Yamoussoukro, and moving toward Abidjan, the commercial capital, in a very fluid situation.
“Côte d’Ivoire has reached the boiling point,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We are extremely concerned about the potential for further human rights atrocities, given the killings by both sides and the continued incitement to violence through the media by Gbagbo cronies.”
In a four-month organized campaign of human rights abuses, which probably rise to the level of crimes against humanity, Gbagbo’s forces have killed, “disappeared,” and raped real and perceived supporters of Ouattara, Human Rights Watch has found. Armed men supporting Ouattara have also engaged in numerous extrajudicial executions of presumed pro-Gbagbo fighters and supporters.
According to UN estimates, approximately 500 people, the vast majority civilians, have lost their lives as a result of the violence. In March alone, forces aligned with Gbagbo killed at least 50 civilians by firing mortars into neighborhoods known to be Ouattara strongholds. Pro-Gbagbo forces have also beaten and hacked and burned to death numerous perceived Ouattara supporters at checkpoints set up by militias.
On March 25, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that between 700,000 and one million people have been displaced, largely from Abidjan. On March 29, UNHCR reported that 116,000 Ivorians have fled to eight West African countries: Liberia, Ghana, Togo, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria.
On March 30, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution that calls on Gbagbo to leave office and urges a political solution to the crisis. The resolution demands an end to violence against both civilians and the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). It urges the UN operation to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.
In addition, the Security Council resolution calls upon all parties to cooperate fully with an international commission of inquiry put in place in late March by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate human rights violations committed in Côte d’Ivoire. Finally, the resolution adopts targeted sanctions against Gbagbo and four close associates, including his wife, Simone.
Human Rights Watch has urged all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and end the targeting of civilians and extrajudicial executions, and has called for UN peacekeepers to enhance civilian protection. The UN operation needs equipment, such as helicopters, as well as additional deployments of well-trained and equipped troops, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has also stressed the importance of accountability for atrocities. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) 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. While Côte d’Ivoire is not a party to the court, it accepted the court’s jurisdiction through a declaration in 2003. The Security Council resolution references this declaration and states that the report of the commission of inquiry should be provided to the Security Council and “other relevant international bodies.”
“The massacre of West African immigrants, targeting of civilians in Abidjan, and massive displacement are deeply troubling and require an effective response,” Bekele said. “The UN should prepare for the worst and do all it can to protect everyone in Côte d’Ivoire who is at grave risk of horrific abuse.”