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Report: Uneven justice could hurt stability in Ivory Coast

A recent Human Rights Watch report highlights imbalance in charges against culprits of the 2011 post-election violence. The president’s supporters have not faced the kind of punishment opponents have.

Impunity for supporters of Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara alleged to have committed human rights abuses after the 2010 election here threatens the country’s already fragile stability, Human Rights Watch said in a report released this week.

President Ouattara came to power in 2011, following a disputed election in November 2010. IncumbentLaurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat, despite international recognition of Ouattara’s victory. Violence between Mr. Gbagbo and Ouattara’s supporters over the next five months claimed more than 3,000 lives.

Although the government concedes that its own supporters committed human rights violations, none have been charged almost two years after the end of the conflict. By contrast, the government has charged more than 150 Gbagbo supporters in connection with crimes from that period, including kidnapping and murder. Gbagbo himself is in The Hague facing a war crimes prosecution before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“The numbers speak for themselves,” says Param-Preet Singh, author of the New York-based human rights organization’s report.

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“Without swift and determined action, Ouattara’s government is in danger of continuing the country’s principal ‘tragedy’: impunity for those connected to power,” the report states.

Ouattara promised impartial justice when he came to office, but some say a focus on economic growth and public safety have taken priority over healing a divided population.

“I worry that [the Ouattara administration is] losing critical legitimacy by not pursuing a more evenhanded approach to justice and accountability,” says Scott Straus, a professor at theUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison and expert on West African politics. They have “privileged economic growth and attempts to reestablish security.”

Mass graves

The report’s release came on a day that provided a chilling reminder of Ivory Coast’s bloody recent history. Yesterday the Ministry of Justice commenced a months-long process of exhumations of victims from the post-election crisis, with investigators beginning to explore the first of at least dozens of mass graves throughout the country.

Ouattara supporters implicated in the report include members of the national army, the Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI), who have been linked to a string of more recent abuses as well. These charges include arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, extortion, and torture, and mostly targeted Ivorians of ethnic groups perceived as supportive of the former president. There was a spike in these crimes after a wave of attacks on Ivorian military installations last summer.

In the past month, there have been three fresh attacks in the country’s west, which has a porous border with Liberia that has frequently served as a launch pad for assaults by Gbabgo loyalists.

Political trust

Mr. Ouattara has presided over a strong economic recovery since the conflict but has struggled to win over a deeply divided population. He was elected in the 2010 runoff with just 54 percent of the vote, and many Ivorians harbor suspicions about his origins, as he comes from the country’s immigrant-rich north.

Mr. Ouattara inherited a government rife with corruption and nepotism, Mr. Straus says. However, he adds, “I don’t think Ouattara has inspired confidence in the population that government is in their interest — is in the interest of rebuilding political trust and ruling for the majority of the people.”

The HRW report contains a series of concrete recommendations that Ms. Singh says would allow the Ivorian government to show “that its commitment is not just in words but in action.” Some of those recommendations aim at strengthening prosecutorial independence, establishing stronger witness protections, and improving coordination between the ICC and Ivorian investigators.

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Singh also urges the international community to take a more proactive stance. While some countries have pressured Ouattara’s government privately, she calls for more to speak out publically and to offer further support to Ivory Coast’s beleaguered justice system.

The risks of not acting, she warns, are grave—and reflected in Ivory Coast’s immediate past.

“When we interviewed civil society across the political spectrum, the message that came to us time and again was that if there isn’t impartial justice—if impunity for one side of the conflict continues—that will essentially sow the seeds of conflict in the future,” Singh says.

Ivory Coast was plagued for more than a decade by off-and-on civil conflict. In 2002, a mutiny by soldiers in the north split the country in two and led to hundreds of deaths in interethnic violence. Referring to those events, Singh says, “You have the same authors in many cases committing the same crimes.”