ICC to investigate crimes in Ivory Coast

ICC to investigate crimes in Ivory Coast

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, issued a statement today indicating that his team may request the authorization to open a full-fledged investigation into atrocities committed in recent months in the Ivory Coast. The statement urged the U.N. Security council to "expedite" the process so that he "can proceed faster with an investigation and start to prepare a request for an arrest warrant for those most responsible for crimes in Ivory Coast."

Clearly, there are crimes to investigate. After reports that as many as 1,000 were killed in the Western town of Duékoué over the weekend, today another massacre site is reported to have been found. Holding outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo’s military to account for shelling a market and disappearing political opponents is unquestionably a good thing, right? 

Yes — but it also opens up a lot of very difficult questions about how this political crisis is going to end. 

First, take the issue of exile for Gbagbo. If he believes there is a risk he’ll be indicted by the International Criminal Court, he will be very unlikely to agree to take refuge in any country that recognizes the court. Offering amnesty is no longer a carrot that negotiators can offer; if the ICC  succeeds in opening an investigation, and Gbagbo is to be indicted, Ivory Coast’s national judicial system would be compelled to hand him over. That in turn raises the difficult question of how Gbagbo’s supporters (remember, he won 46 percent of the vote) would react if their political icon were arrested. (Not good, I’m going to say.) 

Actually, arrests of any political figures could be divisive. After all, there are reports (not yet confirmed either way) that Ouattara-loyal forces were involved in the civilian deaths in  Duékoué. A new president might be reluctant to hand over his men for such crimes, particularly since the Ouattara camp has denied any wrongdoing. But justice that only cuts one way will be hard to stomach for Ivorians observing the political process. 

This is not to say that there should not be accountability for crimes. There should be. And proponents of the court are correct to argue that the ICC’s promise to investigate can be a very clear deterrant for parties on the ground to misbehave. 

The point is this: the crisis in the Ivory Coast is at an unbelievably delicate moment. The country is polarized. If Gbagbo is not allowed a dignified exit — much as it seems unfair — the crisis runs a serious risk of getting worse.  Militias armed in favor of one side or the other — or in some cases loyal to no one in particular — can’t be accomodated but neither can they be forgotten. Once the immediate political crisis ends, social cohesion will be Ouattara’s biggest challenge as president. He’s going to have to ensure that divided Ivorians can live with one another again. 

Successful justice has often taken place in countries as divided as this one — take Chile after the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet of Sierra Leone after its civil war at the turn of the century. The succesful keys of those processes were the securing of a political solution first, integrating local courts and reconciliation processes into the quest for justice, and whole lot of community outreach so that citizens throughout the country would understand that indictments of individuals were not indictments of their group, be it religious, ethnic, or political.

As the situation stands this morning, negotiations to get outgoing president  had "failed" and an  assault of the presidential compound is underway by forces loyal to election winner and internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara. Let’s hope both sides know what a tight-rope they are walking.