Toward A New Côte d'Ivoire -- or the Selective Justice of the Past?

06/22/2011 11:29 am ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

After six months of violence, almost everyone in Côte d'Ivoire has a horrific story to tell: a loved one killed gruesomely, the memory of being raped, a house burned or pillaged of everything. I have listened to hundreds of these stories, amazed at people's strength to recount the unthinkable to a stranger as armed conflict continued.

Ivoirian residents repeatedly described a broken system in which ordinary people paid the price. For years, a security forces uniform or political ties with the government offered effective immunity from prosecution, no matter the crime. The rule of law was replaced by the power that comes from holding a Kalashnikov or the ability to pay a bribe. And from the Abidjan residents in Abobo neighborhood who faced indiscriminate shelling to the Guéré women who fled the violence in the far west to Liberia, the message was the same: to create a new Côte d'Ivoire, the abuse must stop, and the government must ensure justice by prosecuting the people responsible for grave crimes - regardless of who they are or whom they support.

President Alassane Ouattara has made important gestures to advance accountability. Most recently, on June 15, he announced a national commission of inquiry to investigate the violence that began when former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept the November 28 election results. The violence left at least 3,000 dead, and scores of women were raped. President Ouattara has repeatedly promised justice for crimes committed by both sides - meaning Gbagbo's forces and Prime Minister Soro's Republican Forces.

But in recent weeks, the divide between the government's promises and its action has widened.
Though both sides are implicated in grave crimes, members of only one of those armed forces are in detention. To end resentment and re-establish the rule of law, Ouattara should fulfill his commitment to end impunity and the selective justice that has fueled further abuse.

From December to May, Human Rights Watch undertook five field missions in Côte d'Ivoire and at the Ivoirian-Liberian border. We interviewed more than 500 victims and witnesses to violence, including people from both political camps, all major ethnic groups, neighboring West African countries, and even inside the two armed forces.

I personally spoke with women in Abobo who were raped by Gbagbo's forces and then forced to watch as their husbands were executed, simply because they had been active in mobilizing voters for Ouattara. I interviewed some of the few survivors from a massacre in Bloléquin, a village in the far west, in which Liberian mercenaries and Gbagbo militiamen executed scores of people, including women and children, who could not speak the Guéré language as a mother tongue. A father painfully described watching the execution of five sons, accused by militiamen of being "rebels" because of their Muslim names. These crimes implicate Gbagbo and his forces - overseen by those like General Bi Poin, General Dogbo Blé, and Charles Blé Goudé - in what likely amounts to crimes against humanity.

But beginning with their March military offensive, Ouattara's Republican Forces also engaged in atrocities against civilians, often along ethnic lines. While the Republican Forces successfully ended the conflict with Gbagbo's arrest, an important accomplishment, they committed - and continued to commit in subsequent weeks - grave crimes.

I interviewed women who watched the execution of their husbands, brothers, and sons in Duékoué by the Republican Forces and the Dozo. Youth showed me scars from torture suffered in detention. A Republican Forces soldier, at great personal risk, described being psychologically scarred after watching the execution in May of 29 prisoners detained in Yopougon for crimes that, he said, "no one could tell you." A young woman described how she was brutally raped by a Republican Forces soldier and forced to load three vehicles with pillaged goods, then watched soldiers execute 18 youth because of their age and ethnicity.

An international Commission of Inquiry, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the Fédération internationale des droits de l'Homme (FIDH) all published similar findings in recent statements highlighting the Republican Forces' involvement in killings and rapes. These took place in the far west, including in Duékoué, where hundreds of people were massacred, and in ongoing acts of violence targeting perceived Gbagbo supporters in Abidjan.

There were also acts of extraordinary bravery and generosity recounted to me by both sides of the partisan divide: Malinkés were housed and saved by Guéré and Bété neighbors as the Jeunes Patriotes rampaged through Abidjan, and Guérés were similarly saved by their northern neighbors as the Republican Forces engaged in collective punishment against pro-Gbagbo groups. Other victims described members of the Republican Forces, including commanders, intervening forcefully to stop comrades from executing innocent people. Ivoirians can learn a great deal from this spirit and use it to promote national reconciliation.

These people represent the best of Côte d'Ivoire, much of what made the country West Africa's longtime beacon of growth and stability. Unfortunately, their voices were often drowned out as the Gbagbo government, in particular, exploited ethnic and political tensions - culminating in near daily broadcasts on Gbagbo's RTI [Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivorienne] television station that incited violence against "foreigners," the explosive term signifying northern Ivoirians and other West Africans.

More than anything, total impunity fueled the last decade's horrors. Human Rights Watch has worked in Côte d'Ivoire since 2000, documenting atrocities following the 2000 elections, during the 2002-2003 armed conflict, and during the years of "no war, no peace" when the country was divided between north and south. No one was credibly brought to justice for any of the grave violations committed during these periods, allowing many of the same people on both sides to remain in power and again terrorize civilians during the most recent violence.

At his inauguration, President Ouattara promised an end to this impunity, and I felt the hope that many Ivoirians shared that there would be an end to grave crimes without justice. But concerns are growing about whether the promise will be kept.

Dozens from the Gbagbo camp are in detention or under house arrest, and military and civilian prosecutors have begun to investigate their cases. Although these are steps in the right direction - particularly since detainees have been in legal limbo for months, without formal charge - that progress will be undermined if the other side's crimes are not also prosecuted.

As of now, no Republican Forces soldiers have been arrested for the grave crimes in which they have been implicated. Almost three months have passed since the Duékoué massacre. This raises serious concerns of victor's justice, a worry highlighted also by the international Commission of Inquiry.

Unfortunately, the Ouattara government has at times embarked on a public campaign to deny accusations, deflect blame, and malign organizations whose only commitment is to tell the truth. Instead, the Ouattara government should uphold the principles the president outlined as he took the oath of office.

While the proposed national commission of inquiry could help further elucidate violations and those responsible, it should not serve as another excuse to delay credible, even-handed justice. The international commission of inquiry, which President Ouattara requested, has already reported on the complicity of Republican Forces in grave international crimes and prepared an Annex that names those most responsible on both sides. The government would be well served to begin judicial investigations against those identified - whether from the Gbagbo camp or its own.

The government should show that it stands with all of the conflict's victims, and that no one - regardless of political allegiance or military rank - is above the law.