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UN Rights Commissioner Highlights Instability in West Africa


The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is continuing her visit to several West African countries, after having voiced concern at human rights issues in Ivory Coast. A human rights campaigner says instability in Ivory Coast will impact Liberia and possibly Sierra Leone.

The first stop on the U.N. High Commissioner's visit to West Africa was Ivory Coast, which has been divided by civil war since 2002.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour held meetings with President Laurent Gbagbo in the government controlled south of the country and with New Forces rebels in the north.

The head of human rights in the New Forces, Mamadou Koulibaly, said after a meeting with Ms. Arbour in the northern town of Bouake, that the talks had been fruitful.

Mr. Koulibaly said the New Forces were most concerned with economic and social rights in the north, such as the provision of health and education services. Most teachers and health workers fled for safety in the south when the fighting started three years ago.

Ms. Arbour also visited western Ivory Coast where dozens of civilians were killed at the beginning of June.

In the village of Farfaro, ethnic We and Dioula leaders welcomed Ms. Arbour saying that she brought them comfort. They explained how they fled their village because of what they said was ethnic violence.

At the end of her three day visit, Ms. Arbour appealed to all Ivorian political actors to prevent human rights abuses, and bring those responsible to justice.

Ms. Arbour also expressed concern over the increased militarization of areas under government control, and the general insecurity of civilians. She said the right to life was being abused in the country.

Earlier in the week, Ms. Arbour went to Liberia where she met with top officials and took part in discussions on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although such a commission was planned in a peace accord, it has still not been set up.

African legal advisor for the British-based human rights group, Interights, Ibrahima Kane, says he is especially concerned with the security of civilians in Liberia because the country is still awash with small arms, despite a United Nations demobilization program which tried to get soldiers to hand in their weapons for money.

"The guns received by the U.N. are very, very old guns. So that means that these people are still hiding their weapons. It means the kind of demobilization was just to get money," Mr. Kane says.

Mr. Kane applauds Ms. Arbour's visit to the region, which will end in Sierra Leone. Mr. Kane says it draws attention to problems of stability in both countries, saying that violence in Ivory Coast can spread if that crisis is not resolved.

"I think that Ms. Arbour's visit in that region is a very important step taken by the U.N. to tell the international community that the situation in Cote d'Ivoire is related to the situation in Liberia which is also related to the situation in Sierra Leone. So you can't resolve one problem without resolving the other problems," Mr. Kane says.

In Sierra Leone, Ms. Arbour is meeting President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to discuss the human rights situation there. The U.N.'s peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone has been largely successful. But analysts say development needs and health issues still need to be addressed in the country where tens of thousands of rebels and militia have now disarmed.

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