The United Nations' special advisor on genocide has wrapped up a tour of Ivory Coast, saying he is very concerned by continued widespread human rights abuses in the country. He called on the government and rebels to take action before things get worse.
The United Nations' special advisor on the prevention of genocide Juan Mendes' five-day trip to Ivory Coast took him throughout the war-divided country.
After visiting both rebel and government-held zones, Mr. Mendes told journalists Saturday he was not reassured by what he'd seen. "The international community is watching the situation in Cote d'Ivoire with serious concern and has been horrified by brutal massacres of civilians committed in the country," he said.
There has been relatively little direct fighting between President Laurent Gbagbo's government forces and the New Forces rebels in Ivory Coast's three-year civil war. U.N. and French peacekeepers patrol a buffer zone that runs through the middle of the country east to west.
But despite the frozen nature of the conflict, Mr. Mendes said ethnic and political tensions throughout the country have put the uneasy peace at risk.
On his trip, Mr. Mendes visited the western village of Guitrozon, where earlier this year dozens of civilians were hacked to death with machetes or burned alive in their homes. The cocoa-rich west has long been the scene of low-level conflict between indigenous ethnic groups and those with roots in the north.
President Gbagbo installed a military administration in the west soon after the Guitrozon massacre. Mr. Mendes said the move seems to have calmed the situation there. But, he said, there is still cause for concern. "I was surprised, however, to see that militias there remain armed and organized. As irregular forces that operate outside the legal framework of the state's authority, they contribute to an atmosphere of fear and instability and should be disarmed and dismantled," he said.
Attempts to disarm rebels in the north and pro-Gbagbo militias in the south have repeatedly failed, as successive peace deals aimed at reuniting the country have collapsed.
The result, says Mr. Mendes, has been widespread lawlessness and an atmosphere of impunity that could serve as the seeds of a future genocide.
Before leaving Ivory Coast, he urged both sides to act quickly to ensure this doesn't happen. "I insist that the cycle of impunity must be broken on a case by case basis. Unless the authorities of Cote d'Ivoire and of the rebel forces act to investigate their own and punish the perpetrators, the international community will have the responsibility to do so," he said.
The international Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as the attempt to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. One-hundred-thirty-seven countries have ratified the convention, which makes genocide an international crime and obliges signatory nations to take action to prevent it.