Don’t Be Fooled. Conflict Still Burns in Cote D’Ivoire

The last few days have been full of bad news from Ivory Coast. On June 6, an independent inquiry appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council noted that a number of atrocities had been committed during the previous half year of turmoil, some of them likely war crimes. Worse, months after the political crisis in the Ivory Coast came to an end, the violence continues in pockets of the country, according to new testimonies collected by Medecins Sans Frontiers and statements by officials at the United Nations mission in Cote d’Ivoire.

Let’s back up first to the months between December 2010 and April 2011, when two leaders contested the seat of power in Cote d’Ivoire. That the commission of inquiry found evidence of human rights violations isn’t a surprise, nor was it unexpected that the alleged violations were perpetrated on all sides of the conflict.

The commission summed up what was going on:

The transformation of ethnic background into a political issue, the manipulation by the various political groupings involved of young Ivorians, turning them into instruments of violence, and unresolved rural land issues are among the underlying causes of the massive, serious human rights violations in Côte d’Ivoire. The elections were the event that catalysed the outbreak of violence.

What perhaps came as a greater surprise to the commission, which traveled to Liberia, was the continuing flood of refugees into the country in May. As of June 17, there were some 142,331 Ivorian refugees living in Liberia. In Abidjan, the commission notes, armed men still roam the streets, and mercenaries, some from neighboring states, are still to be found crossing in and out of the country.

What’s at work here? In short, the crisis opened old wounds. The country was polarized between the two self-proclaimed presidents, the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and the internationally recognized election winner Alassane Ouattara. There are any number of grievances (in any country, not just Cote d’Ivoire) that easily lend themselves to being instrumentalized in politics: my opponent’s people took your land; my opponent’s people took your jobs…that sort of thing.  Unfortunately, long after the election results are settled or the political crisis “ends,” the grievances are still real. The politicking has only added more flame to the fire.

The take away here is first and foremost that conflicts don’t end when they supposedly end. Specifically in Cote d’Ivoire’s case, this weeks’ news makes it more important than ever that the government follow up on its promise to open a commission of inquiry into recent month’s events.

Worryingly however, Amnesty International today claimed that some 50 members of the Gbagbo administration — including the former prime minister and former minister of foreign affairs — are being held without charge.

Amnesty International is concerned that a number of individuals held at the Pergola Hotel and possibly in other locations may be prisoners of conscience, held solely because of their political opinions, actual or perceived.

The organization is particularly worried about the plight of 23 members of the police and military held in the northern town of Korhogo in conditions that may be life-threatening.

A recent Amnesty International delegation visited detainees at the Pergola Hotel, but was denied access to those being held in the northern towns of Korhogo, Bouna and Odienné, including Laurent Gbagbo and his wife.

A number of those detained at the hotel were beaten by the FRCI, forces loyal to President Alassane Ouattara, at the time of their arrest, at least one severely enough to lose consciousness. French and UNOCI soldiers were present during the detainees’ arrest and transfer to the hotel, but did not intervene to prevent the ill-treatment.

It’s a foreboding way to begin reconciling a broken country.