As Libya steals the spotlight, another crisis threatens the lives of countless thousands of civilians.
- By Corinne DufkaCorinne Dufka is a senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — As the world rallies behind the Libyan population, it is hard to understand why the Ivory Coast is just a footnote in international news and on the diplomatic agenda. In recent weeks in this critical West African country, hundreds of civilians have been killed, often in horrendous ways. New bodies turn up on the streets and in the morgues nearly every day with bullet wounds, slashed throats, and charred skin from being burned alive. As in Libya, a desperate regime clings to power and makes murderous threats against its own people. And, in both cases, peaceful protesters are being mowed down by machine guns.
In the case of Libya, it took the U.N. Security Council only days to pass one of its strongest resolutions in years, imposing severe sanctions on the country’s leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and his enablers and referring the case to the International Criminal Court. The council took the ultimate step last week by authorizing military intervention, invoking its "responsibility to protect," a norm that grew out of the Rwandan genocide, requiring the international community to intervene when a country fails to protect its own citizens.
Not so in the case of Ivory Coast, where the council’s response has been neutered by Russian and South African misgivings. The council has failed to send an unequivocal message to Laurent Gbagbo, who has clung to power despite having clearly lost the November presidential election. In the view of both the African Union and the United Nations, Gbagbo has overseen what probably amounts to crimes against humanity. His security forces and allied militias engage in brutal killings, forced disappearances, politically motivated rape, indiscriminant shelling, and torture in an often-organized campaign of terror against real or perceived supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last year’s election. Armed clashes have intensified around the country during the last two weeks; on March 17, at least 30 civilians were killed and 40 wounded when mortars fired by Gbagbo’s forces exploded in a crowded marketplace in the Abobo neighborhood.
Yet unlike Qaddafi, Gbagbo and his inner circle have not been added to the U.N. sanctions list. The Security Council has not taken action to ensure that perpetrators of the crimes are held to account, and no "responsibility to protect" has been invoked.
The signs of an impending tragedy are plain for the world to see. On Feb. 25, Gbagbo’s youth minister and close confidant, Charles Blé Goudé, called on "real" Ivoirians to protect their neighborhoods and chase out foreigners, a scarcely veiled threat against northern Ivoirian ethnic groups that tend to support Ouattara and immigrants from neighboring countries, as well as the U.N.-authorized peacekeepers and French troops. Blé Goudé’s militia supporters have heeded the call. Some victims have been burned alive or beaten to death, while attackers have looted other victims’ shops, destroyed their homes, and told them to leave their neighborhoods — where many have lived for decades — or be killed. Since late February, some 700,000 Abidjan residents have been displaced from their homes due to fighting and reprisals.
More generalized violence against Ouattara supporters also continues. On March 3, seven women, armed only with branches and cardboard signs as they chanted anti-Gbagbo slogans with thousands more women, were slaughtered by heavy machine-gun fire. Gbagbo’s security forces shot them as they drove by. A horribly graphic video of the event has circulated widely on the Internet. A March 19 statement by Gbagbo’s spokesperson called on supporters to "neutralize" all suspect presences, which has only intensified concern about attacks against civilians.
Until recent days, the former rebels of the Forces Nouvelles, loosely allied to Ouattara, had more or less kept quiet. But our researchers have uncovered disturbing evidence that some of them have fallen back to their old ways, engaging in reprisal killings against Gbagbo supporters and summarily executing pro-Gbagbo forces detained in areas of the financial capital, Abidjan, which are now under Forces Nouvelles’ control. Guillaume Soro, Ouattara’s prime minister and the former Forces Nouvelles commander, has not publicly denounced these acts.
As incendiary threats pour in from both sides, the country is on the brink of a full resumption of armed conflict. As in the past, civilians will almost certainly bear the brunt of the bloodshed. Almost half a million Ivoirians have already been displaced by the violence, including more than 95,000 into neighboring Liberia, threatening regional stability as well.
The international community should not look the other way. Given the pressing dangers faced by the Ivoirian people — tens of thousands of whose lives are at risk — the Security Council should consider the full range of options available to protect the population. Ivory Coast deserves nothing less than the type of unified and decisive action the U.N. Security Council has brought to bear on Libya.