Turtle Bay

Ban climbs the bully pulpit for Ivory Coast

Ban Ki-moon, an unabashed champion of quiet diplomacy, has been anything but quiet in his effort to compel Ivory Coast’s longtime political leader, Laurent Gbagbo, to step down from power. Ever since the U.N. certified opposition leader Alassane Ouattara‘s election in a November 28 presidential vote, Ban has maintained a steady, principled position that Gbagbo ...

Ban Ki-moon, an unabashed champion of quiet diplomacy, has been anything but quiet in his effort to compel Ivory Coast’s longtime political leader, Laurent Gbagbo, to step down from power.

Ever since the U.N. certified opposition leader Alassane Ouattara‘s election in a November 28 presidential vote, Ban has maintained a steady, principled position that Gbagbo decisively lost the election and must go. Ban has also dismissed demands by Gbagbo to withdraw 9,000 peacekeepers from Ivory Coast, instead appealing to the Security Council to strengthen the U.N.’s presence.

He has prodded Navi Pillay, his human rights chief, to publicly voice concerns about post-electoral killings, abductions, and mass graves. And he has repeatedly warned Gbagbo and his followers that they may face prosecution for any continued violence. He has also rejected calls for the kind of power-sharing agreements that have allowed other African leaders, like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, to continue running their countries after losing elections.

The U.N. chief’s response to the electoral crisis contrasts starkly with Ban’s efforts to reach out to other autocracies, including Burma’s junta, which organized a deeply flawed election in November 2010 to ratify its continued control over the country’s political life. In that case, Ban has sought to work behind the scenes to quietly persuade Burmese leaders to open their country to democratic reform.

Even his harshest critics of his quiet diplomacy have taken notice. Human Rights Watch, a human rights group that has sharply and repeatedly criticized Ban’s consensual diplomatic style, praised his handling of Ivory Coast. "Faced with the risk of massive human rights violations, Ban Ki-moon was right to go beyond quiet diplomacy and make clear to those in power that they would be held accountable for their acts," Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch’s U.N. representative told Turtle Bay. "We can only hope that Ban’s handling of this crisis singles a more outspoken approach when it comes to human rights."

Still, the tough diplomatic strategy carries large political risks for the United Nations, which now essentially finds itself on one side of a dispute between two armed camps that threatens to spill over into all-out civil war.

The U.N.’s current predicament has roots in the Pretoria Agreement from 2005 between Gbagbo and Ouattara, which called for the establishment of a U.N. electoral panel to certify last year’s election outcome. The arrangement — which placed the U.N. in the unprecedented position of certifying an election in a sovereign African state — was proposed by the Ouattara camp, which questioned Gbagbo’s commitment to accept defeat.

But the U.N. subsequently shut down the electoral office under pressure from Gbagbo. Responsibility for certifying the election fell to Ban’s special representative, Choi Young-Jin, who on December 8 endorsed a ruling by Ivory Coast’s independent electoral commission that Gbagbo had lost. "The will of the people points to one conclusion, that the people have chosen one person, not two, as the winner of the presidential election: The Ivorian people has chosen Mr. Alassane Ouattara with an irrefutable margin as the winner over Mr. Laurent Gbagbo," Choi said after conducting a review of election.

Gbagbo has responded by challenging the U.N. certification, questioning the U.N.’s impartiality, and demanding that the U.N. peacekeeping force leave the country. Gbagbo’s armed backers, operating with the apparent acquiescence of Ivory Coast’s military, have launched attacks against civilian supporters of Ouattara and struck at U.N. peacekeepers. In the latest skirmish, Ivorian youths allied with Gbagbo’s government sent numerous U.N. vehicles ablaze and forced a U.N. ambulance to take flight. The U.N. Security Council is set to approve the deployment of 2,000 more U.N. peacekeepers.

But African leaders, who have taken the lead in trying to prod Gbagbo into stepping down, have been ambivalent about whether they will use force to make him go. Last month, the Economic Community of West African States, which is chaired by Nigeria, threatened to use "legitimate force" to make Gbagbo leave. But some members of the group, including Ghana and Cape Verde, have made it clear they oppose the use of force. South Africa, meanwhile, has pressed for a power-sharing arrangement.

Ban, meanwhile, is now scouring the globe for more U.N. peacekeepers and at least two attack helicopters. The latest "clashes between the civilian population supporting President Ouattara and Ivorian security forces who had raided the area are reported to have left six people dead," said Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky. "A curfew has been imposed and the forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo are attempting to force [the U.N.] military and police units dispatched to protect civilians to leave the area.

"The Secretary-General warns those responsible for organizing and executing the planned operation that they will be held responsible for their actions," Nesirky warned. "On its part, UNOCI’s troops and police units are determined to remain in the area and will carry out their mandate in an impartial and professional manner."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Tag: Africa

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