The Cote d'Ivoire Commission of Inquiry has rightly highlighted the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by armed forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo and President Alassane Ouattara. The Commission's mandate should be extended until September to publish a longer report that includes the breadth of its fieldwork.
Since the second round of presidential elections on November 28, 2010, Ivoirian residents have been subjected to a relentless wave of violence in which at least 3000 people were killed and scores of women raped. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed more than 500 victims and witnesses to violence during five missions to document grave violations of international law during the post-election period.
In the days immediately after the elections, forces under Gbagbo's control systematically targeted real and perceived supporters of Ouattara, including those from northern Cote d'Ivoire and neighboring West African countries. Human Rights Watch documented killings, enforced disappearances, and rape by pro-Gbagbo forces along political and ethnic lines, amounting to crimes against humanity. These grave violations persisted even in the weeks beyond Gbagbo's arrest.
Widespread violations by Ouattara's Republican Forces began during their March military offensive. Human Rights Watch, like the Commission of Inquiry, documented killings and rapes by the Republican Forces in the country's far west, including participation in the Duekoue massacre. The abuse continued during and after the final battle for Abidjan. The Republican Forces at times subjected those from pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups, particularly young men, to arbitrary detention, torture, and even extrajudicial executions.
Accountability for serious crimes is essential for the victims and to rebuild respect for the rule of law. Those who carried out or ordered unlawful attacks or serious human rights violations should be held to account, regardless of military rank or political allegiance. As the past decade reinforces, impunity risks fueling further abuses.
The Commission's decision to keep confidential a list of those deemed most responsible for grave crimes risks undermining the pursuit of truth and justice. It should be published unless the Commission provides clear reasons why transparency would impede justice.
Extending the Commission's mandate to September 2011 will allow it to prepare a longer report that more fully completes its mandate, including discussion of particular incidents of grave abuses and those responsible as well as the dynamics that underscored patterns of violations. The added detail would highlight the urgency of ensuring prompt investigations and accountability for grave crimes.
While President Ouattara's commitments on accountability are a first step, we reiterate the Commission's concern that no credible judicial procedure appears to have been initiated against any member of the Republican Forces implicated in grave crimes. Moreover, the government needs to charge formally or release those, including former President Gbagbo, who have been detained for months without charge.
President Ouattara has asked the International Criminal Court's prosecutor to open an investigation. The ICC could make a major contribution, but national trials will be critical for accountability. President Ouattara should move ahead promptly with impartial investigations of crimes by both sides and request assistance from donors to enable fair, credible trials.
Human Rights Watch finally calls on the Human Rights Council to take note of the Commission's recommendation and publish the 2004 Commission of Inquiry report. That report has been buried for seven years under the mistaken assumption that its strong findings would derail peace negotiations. Instead, the decision to postpone justice allowed many people implicated in grave crimes to remain in power, and the same people are implicated again. If Cote d'Ivoire is to move past this decade of impunity, the country needs to reckon with its violent past and move forward with a commitment to truth and justice.
We welcome the Council's attention to the grave crimes committed in Cote d'Ivoire and urge member states to work for the long-term promotion of human rights there. This attention is essential to acknowledge the pain of the country's many victims and to prevent further atrocities by making clear that serious crimes against human dignity will not be tolerated.