Turtle Bay

Laurent Gbagbo’s guide to crippling a U.N. peacekeeping mission

Ivory Coast’s illegitimate president, Laurent Gbagbo, may be facing the greatest challenge yet to his rule, as rebel forces encircled his stronghold in the commercial capital of Abidjan. But in recent months Gbagbo has provided the U.N. with a painful lesson in how to prevent a U.N. peacekeeping force from doing its job. Forces loyal ...

Ivory Coast’s illegitimate president, Laurent Gbagbo, may be facing the greatest challenge yet to his rule, as rebel forces encircled his stronghold in the commercial capital of Abidjan.

But in recent months Gbagbo has provided the U.N. with a painful lesson in how to prevent a U.N. peacekeeping force from doing its job. Forces loyal to Gbagbo have unleashed a systematic campaign of harassment that has severely diminished the U.N. mission’s capacity to protect civilians in this West African country, according to internal U.N. documents obtained by Turtle Bay. An assortment of pro-Gbagbo regular army forces, youth militia, foreign mercenaries and special forces have blocked U.N. food and fuel deliveries, torched vehicles, heaved Molotov cocktails at U.N. installations, shot and kidnapped UN peacekeepers.

"A task force led by the head of [the UN] human rights division was established to draft and oversee the implementation of the protection of civilians strategy at both the national and sub-regional levels," according to an internal U.N. human rights report documenting abuses between October and December 2010 against UNOCI, the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast. "However, the strategy has not been fully implemented as [the U.N.] has been systematically prevented [by Gbagbo loyalists] from implementing its mandate, including the protection of civilians and the promotion and protection of human rights."

Another internal report by the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast documents 262 incidents involving attacks on members of the 11,000 member U.N. mission in Ivory Coast. The report, which was made available to the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee last month, covers the period from November 28, the day Gbagbo lost an election to opposition candidate Alassane Oattara, to March 22.

In a series of nearly daily challenges, government forces and pro-Gabgbo militias have torched U.N. vehicles, disarmed and attacked U.N. peacekeepers and severely hindered them from conducting patrols and supplying their operations, according to U.N. officials in Ivory Coast and internal U.N. documents. In many cases, the U.N. responded to challenges to its freedom of movement by returning to base.

U.N. officials in New York challenge the account that emerges from the reports as incomplete. They said the incident reports don’t document the total number of U.N. patrols that provide Ivorians with a greater sense of security. Last month, for instance, the UN launched some 1766 patrols throughout Ivory Coast, including 500 in Abijdan, according to U.N. officials. And while the U.N.’s ability to investigate rights abuses have been severely restricted, the U.N. has established a 24-hour a day "green line" that allows locals to report on rights abuses in the country.

U.N. officials cited several cases where U.N. peacekeepers have intervened on behalf of civilians, including a March 21 incident in which U.N. peacekeepers broke though a roadblock in Atta Coube to stop attacks by Gbagbo support. Three days later, In the same neighborhood, U.N. peacekeepers responded to reports of mortar attacks against civilians, and chased away a number of attackers as they packed up their weapons. U.N. peacekeepers, the officials said, have also provided security for thousands of displaced Ivorians who sought protection at a church in the town of Duekoue. "There is a limit to what blue helmets can do," one U.N. official said. "Peacekeepers are not war-fighters; they are not going to interpose themselves between two armies."

Still, the two documents provide another textbook example of how embattled leaders can use a mix of intimidation and violence, together with intermittent cooperation, to hobble a U.N. peacekeeping force.  In some sense, Gbagbo appears to have himself drawn from the playbook of other African leaders, like Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has provided just enough support to U.N. peacekeepers in his country to keep the international community off his back, but not enough to enable them to succeed.

The playbook runs as follows:

Show ‘em who’s boss: Laurent Gbagbo’s forces have routinely engaged the U.N. mission in a battle of wills, steadily ratcheting up the pressure with a campaign of violent attacks on the blue helmets. Shortly after the U.N. declared Ouattara the winner in Ivory Coast president election,  Gbagbo ordered the U.N. peacekeeping mission out of the country, emboldening his forces to challenge U.N. peacekeepers. In Abidjan on January, 13, "forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo attacked six UN vehicles in two separate incidents during which two non-UN personnel were injured and one UN vehicle was burnt. In one of the incidents a peacekeeper was taken hostage but released the same day without his Kalashnikov rifle." Throughout the country, Gbagbo loyalist routinely harassed U.N. personnel, carrying out illegal searches of U.N vehicles and badgering UN staff when they flew in our out of the country. Even Gbagbo’s militias got into the act, arresting U.N. officials and delivering them to the local police stations. A December 20 entry cites a bizarre case in the town of Daloa in which U.N. personnel allow pro-Gbagbo militias to check a U.N. aircraft for weapons.

Protect the arms pipeline: Gbagbo had long sought to undercut the U.N.’s ability to monitor an arms embargo on Ivory Coast. In 2006, his government compelled the U.N. to accept a rule that UN arms monitors would have to alert the Ivorian authorities at least 2 days in advance of plans to search for weapons-a move that provided government forces with time to hide them. Shortly after the election, Gbagbo’s government went further, blocking U.N. patrols of Ivorian sea and air ports and preventing a U.N. Group of Experts from inspecting government facilities for weapons, a key provision of a U.N. arms embargo on Ivory Coast. On February 28, "a team of the Group of Experts and UNOCI Arms Embargo Unit was fired upon by the FDS when they attempted to enter Yamoussoukro Airport. No casualty was recorded."

Grounding the air assets: In one typical entry in the report, dated December 29, a gang of pro-Gbagbo youths, known as the Young Patriots, successfully blocked the U.N. from landing a helicopter at an airfield in the town of San Pedro. "A leader of the Young Patriots called UNOCI in San Pedro and asked for a helicopter landing to be cancelled, since the Young Patriots intended to burn the helicopter," according to the entry. "A crowd of Young Patriots gathered around military troops demanding their immediate departure from the area threatening to burn the vehicles otherwise. The flight was cancelled." Earlier this month, on March 10, Gbagbo’s forces went further. "The Gendarmeries Commander forbade all landings of any aircraft at San Pedro airport and helipad, and deployed gendaremerie and obstacles on the field in order to prevent any landing."

Claim the airwaves: The State owned-television corporation, Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne(RTI) broadcast false information designed to encourage violence against ethnic minorities. But it was also used to considerable effect in fanning anti-UN sentiments in Ivory Coast. "RTI embarked upon an intensive and systematic campaign to incite intolerance and hatred against the United Nations" and other foreigners. "RTI constituted itself into a propaganda machine at the service of Mr. Gbagbo, monopolizing television broadcast space, echoing inflammatory messages and violence speeches made by extremists loyal to Mr. Gbagbo, and calling on the Ivorian population "to resist" the "enemy", thus creating a potentially explosive situation in the country."

Cut off their supplies: As Gbagbo forces sought to starve out his rival, Allassane Ouattara, who waited out the post-electoral period in a U.N. protected Golf Hotel, they also move to cut of the supplies of his protectors. Starting on January 11, the Security Defense Forces(FDS) began blocking the weekly supply vehicle for the U.N. troops protecting the hotel. On January 13, "a fuel tanker on the road to Adzope was intercepted by five armed vehicles belonging to the Ivorian army and was prevented by force from continuing its way. The tanker was bringing fuel for the company at Adzope from Bouake." Three days later, a UN helicopter "carrying food supplies for troops based in Toulepleu was threatened by a mob after landing one a helipad near a UNOCI camp, threatening to damage it and set fire to it. The helicopter took off as the situation deteriorated."

Activate the militias: It is always easier to use armed irregulars, who are ostensibly independent of the government to do your dirty work. Shortly after the election, Gbagbo’s allies reactivated the notorious Young Patriots, a militia reportedly established by Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo’s youth minister. On January 24, a group of "around 300 Young Patriots gathered at the UNOCI logistics base in Koumassi and demanded that no UN Vehicle and personnel enter the area. The demonstrators threw stones and Molotov cocktails and tried to enter the base forcibly, but did not succeed. UNOCI used tear gas against the demonstrators who built a barricade to block entry and exit from the base. Local police were present but did not intervene." A day later, a smaller group of about 100 Young Patriots tried again. They "threw stones and tried to force their way into the base but were prevented from doing so by peacekeepers using teargas. In the afternoon, Young Patriots threw Molotov cocktails at the base. They failed to reach the interior but caused fires in warehouses adjacent to the base." It was only the following day that the U.N. succeeded in dispersing the group by turning water cannons on the group.

Call out the mob: It is one thing for a heavily-armed U.N. peacekeeping force to use force to confront an armed group preventing it from doing its job. Quite another to open fire on a mob of locals, dressed in civilian clothes, who may or may not be linked to an armed movement. On January 19, a U.N. military traveling "from Abijdan to Bouake was blocked by an angry mob of around 1,000 people at Main Check Post on Abidjan-Yamossoukro Road and turned back to camp." In the town of Daloa, on December 30, a group of about 150 civilians put up a road block to prevent a U.N. logistics convoy from traveling between U.N. bases. "They were very hostile, throwing stones and glasses at the convoy, and making threatening remarks against UNOCI. Negotiations to pass through the road block failed and the patrol was ordered to return to base."

Show a little tenderness: Threatening, intimidating and attacking U.N. peacekeepers may help constrain their capacity to defend your enemies and uncover your crimes, but they don’t play well on the international stage. It can be useful for a thuggish regime to engage in small act of kindness because diplomatic allies can cite them to make your case to the outside world. While the U.N. internal reports document repeated cases of abuse by Gbagbo’s Security Defense Forces (FDS), there are a few examples in which they play nice.  On March 12, members of the FDS swooped into the rescue a U.N. peacekeeper in Abidjan. "Young Patriots attacked a U.N. peacekeeper at Deux Plateau," according to the citation. "The peacekeeper sustained injuries and was robbed of his belongings, including a mobile phone, U.N. I.D. card and U.N. Driving License. The peacekeeper was rescued by the FDS. The peacekeeper sustained injuries on his head. The U.N. vehicle he was driving was set on fire."

Stop the patrols: The most important activity the U.N. peacekeeping mission engage in are patrols, which are intended to prove to civilians that they can walk the streets safely. Gbagbo’s gangs and forces have tried to undercut that sense of security. On February 26, in  Abijdan, a U.N. patrol was blocked in Abobo by FDS elements who fired at the peacekeepers, wounding two of them in the head. The patrol reacted against the hostile fire and withdrew. The constant obstruction of U.N. vehicles and personnel by Gbabgo’s allies "made it extremely difficult for the mission to perform its mandated tasks effectively, including the investigation of alleged human rights abuses. In particular, the Human Rights Task Force was prevented several times from carrying out investigations into sites of alleged mass graves in Amnyama(Abidjan) and Issia (near Daloa). A female human rights officer who was returning to duty to Cote d’Ivoire after leave was also denied entry at the airport by law enforcement officers who molested her, forcibly took her back to the plane, and forced her to fly back home."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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