With Côte d’Ivoire gripped by violence and political uncertainty, a senior United Nations human rights official today said that it was essential to break the cycle of impunity and retaliation that had taken root in the West African country, and he admonished the international community for failing to take concrete steps following the 2002 civil war to ensure accountability as a way to ward off future instability.
“If, after the conflict in 2002, we had established truth and ensured accountability, perhaps we could have avoided what has happened now,” said Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, during a press conference at Headquarters today. Just back from a fact-finding mission, he drew correlations between the deadly violence that had been mounting in Côte d’Ivoire since the November 2010 elections, and the ethnic and religious tensions nearly a decade ago that boiled over into fighting and had left the country divided into a rebel-held north and Government-controlled south.
He told reporters that he had stayed in Abidjan and travelled to the west of the country — both areas reported to be most affected by a raft of human rights abuses. In Abidjan, he said, even before the recent clashes, estimates had placed the death toll at about 400 people, including some 150 killed as a result of deliberate targeting with heavy weapons. Other widespread and systematic abuses had also been reported, including the deliberate targeting of pro-Ouattara groups and the rape of political activists.
Yet, Abidjan’s most immediate problem was the security vacuum that had been created because most police and gendarmerie had left their usual stations, he said. As a result, there had been a number of cases of looting, rape and murder in areas in and around Abidjan that were under the control of groups loyal to ousted president Laurent Gbagbo or incumbent Alassane Ouattara. In response, his office had set up a 24-hour call-in centre, which was currently recording between 200 and 300 calls per day. At the same time, since the staff there lacked access to most parts of the city, it was impossible to verify the number of casualties.
He hoped that, with today’s confirmation by the United Nations that former President Gbagbo and his wife were now in the custody of President Ouattara’s forces and under the protection of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), his office would in a better position to verify what was happening.
Saying that, because of the deteriorated security situation, Abidjan “looks like a dead city”, Mr. Šimonović noted that another “grave problem” was the shortage of medicines. The Minister of Health in the Ouattara Government had expressed concern at the lack of both food and medicines in hospitals. People were also running out of water and many calls for evacuation had been received. To the extent possible, some evacuations had been carried out, including for civilians and journalists, as well as diplomats.
Continuing, he described the west of the country as an area with a tradition of violence whose old settlers — the Guerres — were often involved in abuses and human rights violations directed at newcomers; largely northerners, traditionally pro-Ouattara, and quite a number of foreign workers from neighbouring countries. He noted that the area was still hosting a number of refugees and displaced persons, although those numbers were rapidly decreasing.
Concerning the reported mass killings that took place in the west last week, Mr. Šimonović said that he and Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs had flown to the area to investigate the matter. In Duékoué, where he and Ms. Amos linked up with a United Nations human rights team already on the ground, some 255 people had been killed on 28 and 29 March, the majority of whom were, again, of the Guerre ethnicity. In Guiglo, he was able to confirm that 104 people of various ethnic groups had been killed.
He went on to say that he had raised the issue of the security vacuum in his meetings with President Ouattara and some of his ministers. Also discussed was the issue of preventing retaliation, and Mr. Ouattara had called on all sides to refrain from such actions. He had gone further by announcing drastic punishment for anyone who engaged in retaliation, regardless of political affiliation. At the same time, the President had initiated investigations into the killings in Duékoué, led by a prosecutor, and had also announced the intention to cooperate fully with an international commission of inquiry established by the Human Rights Council.
On reconciliation, he said that Mr. Ouattara had expressed interest in receiving support and assistance from the United Nations in establishing a truth and reconciliation commission. Mr. Šimonović said it was essential to break the cycle of impunity and retaliation taking place historically in that country.
Responding to questions about violations of human rights law, including war crimes and potential crimes against humanity perpetrated by both sides, Mr. Šimonović said it was well-known and documented that pro-Gbagbo forces were involved in systematic and widespread crimes committed against civilians. As far as pro-Ouattara forces were concerned, there were some indications that some retaliatory actions had likely been taken in Duékoué, for instance.
At the moment, however, while it was not possible to confirm who had committed the killings, it was known that victims were predominantly of Guerre ethnicity and supporters of Laurent Gbagbo. Additionally, he said it was also known that killings had taken place while forces of President Ouattara were in control of the area.
Asked if there was any legal basis for the United Nations to refer to Mr. Ouattara as “President” when he was never inaugurated, he explained that the Organization was merely following the decision of the General Assembly in referring to him as “President”; and that the Secretariat was obliged to adhere to the decisions of that body.
To another question about the sometimes wide disparities in the reported numbers of casualties and deaths between, for instance, Human Rights Watch and his office, Mr. Šimonović explained that often the figures were different because the sources were different. “We were on the ground and counted the bodies; that is what Human Rights Watch, to the best of my knowledge, did not do.”
But he acknowledged that Human Rights Watch had talked to many Ivorian refugees in Liberia and had received “some serious witness statements” on developments. He urged everyone to pay attention to what Human Rights Watch was reporting on that count, “because they have gathered more witness statements than the UN has done so far.” That, however, did not mean the United Nations would not be doing so. Just today, some 20 United Nations police had reinforced the efforts to help the world body’s staff obtain evidence on the ground.
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