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Report: Uneven Justice Could Increase Ivory Coast Conflicts

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara attends the sixth joint AU/ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance and Economic Development in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, March 25, 2013.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara attends the sixth joint AU/ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance and Economic Development in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, March 25, 2013.
A new report from the international rights group Human Rights Watch says Ivory Coast is risking a return to violence because of its failure to provide balanced justice for the country’s 2010-11 post-election conflict. The report, released nearly two years after the conflict ended, says that despite the government’s claims, very little progress has been made in bringing some of the most notorious alleged perpetrators to justice.

More than 3,000 people lost their lives in the five months after former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to leave office. His defeat in the November 2010 presidential runoff vote sparked a power struggle with current President Alassane Ouattara.

But Human Rights Watch and other groups say the conflict was partly triggered by impunity for grave crimes committed during a 10-year political crisis that preceded the vote.

Inaction continues

Philippe Bolopion, United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, said Ouattara seemed determined not to repeat old mistakes when he finally took power in May 2011.

"Right after President Ouattara took power, he said that there would be no impunity this time around, that people would be prosecuted for serious crimes regardless of their rank, regardless of their political affiliation. These were very courageous promises to make, but now President Ouattara needs to deliver on them because some of these promises are starting to ring hollow," said Bolopion.

Last October, a military tribunal convicted five Gbagbo loyalists for kidnapping and murdering a military colonel during the violence. But that is the only trial related to the conflict that has taken place, so far.

Meanwhile, more than 100 other Gbagbo supporters have been charged in relation to the fighting. Despite widespread evidence that crimes were committed on both sides, no Ouattara supporters have been charged, sparking allegations of unequal justice.

Unequal action charged

Justice ministry officials could not be reached for comment, but government officials, including Ouattara, have said more time is needed to allow the full range of investigations to take place.  

Bolopion said it would be difficult to restore the public’s faith in the judiciary without thorough and credible investigations into crimes alleged to have been committed by Ouattara’s military backers.

"As far as we know, so far there have been about 150 people investigated for crimes committed by pro-Gbagbo forces and zero by pro-Ouattara forces. And these numbers speak volumes. You cannot tweak them. You cannot spin them," said Bolopion.

The new report identifies several steps Human Rights Watch says will jump-start the justice process. Although the government has created a Special Investigative Cell specifically responsible for investigating crimes committed during the conflict, the report says it remains understaffed and under-resourced.

Taking positive steps

Human Rights Watch recommends allocating more resources to the cell and then having it conduct a mapping exercise that will help judicial officials devise a strategy for pursuing cases going forward.  

The report also calls on the government to ensure judicial officials and witnesses have adequate protection so that security threats do not discourage them from bringing complaints against Ouattara loyalists.

In the absence of a credible justice process, Bolopion said there is a high risk of more fighting in the future.

"Our fear is that if impunity continues, the cycle of violence in Ivory Coast will not really be broken. And sadly, we will not be surprised if in a few years from now we see another cycle of violence with the same perpetrators in position to commit the same types of crimes," said Bolopion.

Human Rights Watch also faults the International Criminal Court for pursuing cases against Gbagbo loyalists before looking at crimes committed by Ouattara supporters. So far, the Hague-based court has issued warrants for former president Gbagbo and his wife, Simone.

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