(Abidjan) – The three-month campaign of organized violence by security forces under the control of Laurent Gbagbo and militias that support him gives every indication of amounting to crimes against humanity. A new Human Rights Watch investigation in Abidjan indicates that the pro-Gbagbo forces are increasingly targeting immigrants from neighboring West African countries in their relentless attacks against real and perceived supporters of Alassane Ouattara, who was internationally recognized as having won the November 2010 presidential election.
The crisis escalated since the end of February 2011, with clashes between armed forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara in the western and central regions of the country, as well as in Abidjan, the financial capital. Armed combatants have committed war crimes, including executions of detainees and targeted killings of civilians and destruction of their property, Human Rights Watch said. The killing of civilians by pro-Ouattara forces, at times with apparent ethnic or political motivation, also risks becoming crimes against humanity should they become widespread or systematic. No one has been held accountable for the attacks, which have left hundreds dead, and neither side has even publicly denounced abuses by its own forces.
On March 10, the African Union Peace and Security Council confirmed previous African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), UN, and EU determinations recognizing Ouattara as the winner of the November 28 presidential elections and called on Gbagbo to step down. Gbagbo’s representatives immediately rejected the AU decision, leaving Côte d’Ivoire on the brink of all-out civil war – with armed clashes between forces of both sides already occurring daily.
Residents from Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Niger gave detailed accounts of daily attacks by pro-Gbagbo security forces and armed militias, who beat foreign residents to death with bricks, clubs, and sticks, or doused them with gas and burned them alive. A Malian man interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how he and six other West Africans were forced into two vehicles by armed militiamen and taken into the basement of an abandoned building. More youths were waiting, who then executed five of the captured West Africans at point-blank range. The homes, stores, and mosques of hundreds of other West Africans have been burned, or they have been chased out of their neighborhoods en masse under threat of death at the hands of pro-Gbagbo militias.
The brunt of these attacks came immediately after Gbagbo’s “youth minister,” Charles Blé Goudé, called publicly on February 25 for “real” Ivoirians to set up roadblocks in their neighborhoods and “denounce” foreigners. The situation threatens to worsen further, as a March 7 letter addressed to the Burkina Faso ambassador by a militant pro-Gbagbo group warned. The letter threatened to “cut the umbilical cord” of the Burkina Faso nationals in Côte d’Ivoire unless they left the country by March 22.
The abuses by pro-Gbagbo forces against real and perceived Ouattara supporters escalated since mid-February. Since the campaign of violence began in early December, witnesses and victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch have consistently implicated the same pro-Gbagbo groups as the principal culprits: the Republican Guard and the Centre de commandement des opérations de sécurité (CECOS), two elite security force units under Gbagbo’s control; and the Young Patriots and FESCI, two violent militia groups long linked to Gbagbo, including through Blé Goudé. Gbagbo’s state television station, Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivorienne (RTI), has helped spur the abuses through frequent incitements to violence against UN peacekeepers, West African nationals, and Ouattara supporters – such as Blé Goudé’s call on February 25.
With the deaths of almost 400 civilians documented by the UN – the vast majority killed by pro-Gbagbo forces in circumstances not connected with the armed conflict and with no apparent provocation – the attacks appear to be widespread. Either the widespread nature of attacks or the systematic element is sufficient to trigger the characterization as crimes against humanity when combined with the nature of the crimes documented by Human Rights Watch and others and the fact the crimes appear to be the outcome of deliberate policy of the authorities, amounting to an “attack on a civilian population.”
On the Ouattara side, armed fighters have begun a pattern of extrajudicial executions against alleged pro-Gbagbo combatants detained in Ouattara territory since the Forces Nouvelles (“New Forces” or FN) gained effective control of the Abobo neighborhood and Anyama village around February 26.
In addition, an egregious March 7 attack by pro-Ouattara fighters on a village near Abobo left at least nine dead, an apparent case of collective punishment against real and perceived civilian supporters of Gbagbo.
On March 14, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, echoed the call of several member states on the Human Rights Council to establish a Commission of Inquiry that would investigate grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law during the post-election period.
Notably, Côte d’Ivoire is subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC. While it is not a party to the court, Côte d’Ivoire accepted the court’s jurisdiction in 2003 through what is known as an article 12(3) declaration. The Office of the Prosecutor repeatedly indicated that it will prosecute crimes committed in Côte d’Ivoire if the ICC’s requirements for investigation – which relate to the gravity of the crimes and the inadequacy of national proceedings – are met.
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