Côte d’Ivoire: Can the crisis be left behind?

By Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada (English)

We have just begun a two week research mission in Côte d’Ivoire, Amnesty International’s third this year. We’ve come because we are concerned that the world may quickly forget that this country, which plunged once again into a political and human rights crisis in late 2010, continues to face daunting human rights problems.

Fighting between forces and militias loyal to the contending presidential candidates, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, has largely subsided after six deadly months. Several thousand people died, mainly civilians caught up in the country’s vicious cycles of violence and revenge. President Ouattara, internationally recognized as the winner of last year’s election, has taken up his new office. Dignitaries from around the world came to his inauguration on 21 May. Former president Gbagbo was arrested on 11 April and is being held in detention in the northern city of Korhogo.

But that is not the end of Côte d’Ivoire’s human rights drama. Not by a long shot. Not even in the short term. There are a number of immediate and pressing human rights challenges demanding attention.Displacement continues to be an overwhelming crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people who fled their homes following targeted attacks in the west of the country and in parts of the capital, Abidjan, are still displaced, both within Côte d’Ivoire and across the border in Liberia and other neighbouring countries. They are living in precarious conditions, but remain too fearful to return home. There is a great deal to be done to restore their confidence that safe return is possible.

Over the weekend we interviewed a number of people who fled their homes in the Yopougon district of Abidjan in early March, some 700 of whom continue to live in difficult conditions on the grounds of a Catholic mission. Far from hearing renewed confidence that things are changing, we heard accounts from several people of recent threats and beatings they had experienced at the hands of President Ouattara’s Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI), as recently as the previous day. We also heard of extrajudicial executions by the FRCI. Returning home is far from their minds.

This fear comes in the wake of waves of reprisal killings and other violence in Yopougon and other parts of the city following Laurent Gbagbo’s arrest on April 11. In many instances, people were targeted simply because of where they lived or their ethnic background. Pro-Gbagbo militia groups carried out scores of brutal killings and attacks as they retreated. And then the FRCI are thought to be responsible for dozens of killings, including point-blank extrajudicial executions of prisoners, throughout the latter half of April and into early May. Decisive and immediate action will be needed to assure people that these patterns of violence can and will be brought to an end.

The justice system also faces an immediate test. There have been many arrests of individuals associated with the Gbagbo government, including of course the former President himself, but also his wife and a large number of former ministers, army officers and other officials. There have already been allegations of ill-treatment of a number of detained army officers. The legal grounds and basis for many of the detentions remains unclear. And access to many of the detainees has been severely restricted. At a time like this it is perhaps more important than ever that justice be seen to be fair and impartial.

The severe human rights violations that wracked Côte d’Ivoire during the six months of devastating violence following last year’s presidential election are part of a much wider, longstanding pattern in the country.

Ultimately, therefore, long-term human rights reforms are needed if Côte d’Ivoire is to truly turn a corner. That includes comprehensive measures to restore the rule of law, including steps to overhaul and ensure the impartiality of the country’s security sector and judicial system. The divisive politics of “hate” based on ethnic and national origin that have characterized the Ivorian political scene for many years must give way to tolerance and inclusion. And the disgraceful impunity that has shielded government and opposition figures from facing justice for grave human rights violations for several decades must at long last come to an end. I was last here with an Amnesty International team in early 2003 and those same three imperatives were at the top of the list then as well: institutional reforms; tackling hatred; and addressing impunity. Now is certainly the time for action.

Over the coming two weeks we will hear from Ivorians in many parts of the country. We will document ongoing human rights concerns. Ultimately we hope to meet with a variety of government and UN officials, to press for action. The bottom line is simple, but will take political will. Above all else, it is most certainly time to leave Côte d’Ivoire’s human rights crisis behind.