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Ivory Coast UN Chief Optimistic About Peace Process

The chief of the United Nations mission in divided Ivory Coast says he believes the drawn-out peace process there could finally work despite new challenges. Rebels recently dismissed a new deal for the start of disarmament, while preparations for a scheduled presidential election later this year are lagging.

The former ambassador at the permanent mission of Sweden to the United Nations in New York, Pierre Schori, formally took over as U.N. chief of mission in Ivory Coast in March.

After going on what he called a listening tour to meet with the adversaries in the divided West African cocoa-producing nation, it's only recently he's become more vocal. In an interview with VOA, he said it's because there is now reason for optimism.

"Now at last, there is hope, there is a perspective of at least some guarded optimism because several important steps have been taken in applying the Pretoria accord, the agreement. And I call the Pretoria agreements which were signed under the leadership of South African President Thabo Mbeki and his mediation, the Africanization of the peace process which is very good, it gives ownership and engagement," said Mr. Schori.

The deal signed in April pushed President Laurent Gbagbo to allow popular northern opposition leader Alassane Ouattara to run in October presidential elections, a key rebel demand. He was barred from running in previous elections because of doubts over his nationality.

Many northerners are considered foreigners, because their origins are from neighboring countries. Rebels say they are fighting to ensure northerners get to be treated as equal citizens.

The Pretoria deal also set back in motion the disarmament, demobilization and reinsertion process of fighters, known as DDR. Rebels are being cautious about agreements though, saying they want to make sure it doesn't just include disarming their fighters, but southern militias as well. Many rebels, who were formerly soldiers before the insurgency started in late 2002, also want to reintegrate into a new army.

Another challenge, Mr. Schori told VOA, is making sure former Liberian fighters don't try to cross into Ivory Coast, trying to get the more than $900 promised for disarmament here.

"That is one of the reasons we have asked for troop reinforcements from the Security Council. We are hoping to get these two-thousand new troops so we can reinforce our presence along the borders, have a capacity of a quick reaction force better than we have know and when we start the DDR process if there are any foreign elements in them they will be separated from the others and be deported," he added.

On a recent trip to European Union headquarters, Mr. Schori said he was able to get some sorely needed pledges of help for the peace process. Ivory Coast was at the center of world attention in November when war resumed in the north and riots in the south caused thousands of foreigners, mostly French nationals, to flee, but since then he says attention has shifted elsewhere.

"In order to rally support for continued solidarity with Cote d'Ivoire, they have so much else on their agenda, like Darfur, the tsunami, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, so they need to be reminded I think of the Cote d'Ivoire. But in Brussels, they are preparing important programs to support disarmament, demobilization and reinsertion of ex-combatants, the elections as well as in general supporting, alleviating the very bad conditions for the population at large, there is a crisis, a humanitarian crisis in Cote d'Ivoire and we must never forget that," he noted.

Other problem areas are the voter lists for the October election, which have yet to be established. A new nationality law also needs to be revised in line with an initial 2003 French-brokered peace deal to help determine who can actually vote.

To help the process, Mr. Schori favors keeping the 4000 strong French peacekeeping force known as Licorne alongside U.N. peacekeepers, despite opposition from supporters of Mr. Gbagbo. They say they are fighting to end the rebellion as well as for real independence from the former colonial power France.