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Report: Illegal Arms Transfers in Ivory Coast Continue to Fuel Instability

FILE - A U.N. peacekeeper collect weapons from the army headquarters of Ivory Coast's strongman Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan.

FILE - A U.N. peacekeeper collect weapons from the army headquarters of Ivory Coast's strongman Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan.

A new report from Amnesty International says reckless and illegal arms transfers to Ivory Coast continue to fuel instability and human rights abuses. The release of the report was timed to coincide with ongoing talks at the United Nations about the adoption of a global Arms Trade Treaty.

Amnesty International's new report documents arms transfers to Ivory Coast beginning in 2002, when an attempted coup against then-president Laurent Gbagbo allowed rebels to take control of the north of the country.

The Gbagbo government immediately began to expand its arms purchases. Spending on military hardware would eventually climb to more than 10 percent of the national budget in 2004-05. Acquisitions documented by Amnesty during this period include ammunition from China, armored vehicles from Angola, attack helicopters from Belarus and Bulgaria and drones from Israel.

Arms purchases by the New Forces rebel group in the north were more difficult to track. However, both Amnesty and an independent U.N. panel say evidence indicates the New Forces received arms from neighboring Burkina Faso. A spokesman for Burkina Faso says he is not authorized to comment on the charge.

Ivory Coast did not come under a U.N. arms embargo until November 2004, so these early transfers were not illegal. But Amnesty says they were reckless because of the ongoing political turmoil.

Amnesty West Africa researcher Salvatore Sagues says the global Arms Trade Treaty should include a provision that would block arms transfers in similar situations in the future.

“Our main goal now for this treaty is to adopt what we call the Golden Rule. It’s an obligation for any state party to the forthcoming treaty to stop any transfer to a party where there is a substantial risk for these arms to be used for abuses,” said Sagues.

The report also says that arms transfers to both sides continued long after the formal U.N. embargo was put in place. Arms received both before and after the embargo went into effect were used during Ivory Coast’s 2010-11 post-election conflict. The violence began after Gbagbo refused to cede office despite losing the November 2010 runoff vote to the current president, Alassane Ouattara. The fighting lasted for six months and claimed at least 3,000 lives, according to U.N. estimates.

Sagues says violations of the U.N. embargo underscore the need for an arms trade treaty.

“The example of Ivory Coast shows clearly that, even when the Security Council adopts a global embargo on arms," he stated. "This embargo can easily be violated by a network of multinational traffickers and by some states.”

It has been nearly two years since the conflict in Ivory Coast came to an end. However, Amnesty researchers say many of the arms from reckless and illegal transfers are now in the hands of the national army, created by President Ouattara, which various groups have charged with committing human rights abuses in the past year.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said the army is guilty of torturing Gbagbo supporters, and Amnesty released a report last month accusing the army of carrying out an attack last July on a camp for displaced persons. Ivorian military officials could not be reached for comment, but they have previously disputed such allegations.

Sagues says a military police force created in late 2011 to stop the use of arms to commit human rights abuses has actually participated in abuses itself.

“What we have been showing quite clearly is that these military police, using these arms, have really been used as a repressive force to attack and to intimidate any person accused of being a pro-Gbagbo supporter," explained Sagues. "Including on the grounds of ethnicity and alleged political affiliation.”

U.N. talks about the global Arms Trade Treaty are expected to run until March 28.