UN Shrinking Humanitarian Space In Côte d’Ivoire

Far from no-fly zones, air-strikes, and United Nations Security Council resolutions, Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war rages on, only without the same level of media attention. Fighting flared after Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede the November presidential election to the internationally recognized winner, Alassane Ouattara. Since then, clashes between supporters of both sides have steadily escalated, especially around the country’s main city of Abidjan. Latest reports indicate that pro-Ouattara rebels — who dominate the country’s northern regions — have begun pushing south towards Abidjan. In response, Gbagbo has been calling on his supporters to join the fight, especially the “Young Patriots” a pro-Gbagbo paramilitary group. Gbagbo has been accused by the UN of arming this and other civilian militias, sparking fears of a new round of pitched battles between rebels and pro-government forces. The UN estimates that some 435 people have died and 450,000 have fled due to the fighting, a figure likely to skyrocket in the coming weeks.

In recent years there has been a vibrant discussion about the ‘militarization of aid’ — that military-run aid and development projects put neutral aid groups at risk from attack from armed groups — shrinking the humanitarian space. Most often this argument is made against the government armed forces such as those of the United States, which regularly provides aid as part of their counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, while the US military is admittedly an easy target for accusations of militarizing aid, much less has been said about a similar thing happening in Côte d’Ivoire. Why? Because the organization shrinking the humanitarian space is the United Nations.

After the election, the UN recognized Ouattara as the president of Côte d’Ivoire and deployed a team of peacekeepers to protect him inside a hotel in Abidjan. For all intents and purposes the UN is in direct opposition to the Gbagbo. However, the UN also runs a number of humanitarian projects in Côte d’Ivoire and now their lack of neutrality is beginning to negatively impact their ability to provide aid:

“On Monday, several UNHCR aid workers were turned away at a checkpoint by pro-Gbagbo supporters, Lejeune-Kaba said.

“Some of the displaced that we have reached have refused aid. They had been told ‘you can’t take any aid from the U.N. or you’ll be in trouble’. Even local NGOs have become targets so long as they are viewed as helping the U.N. deliver aid,” Lejeune-Kaba added.

U.N. staff  have faced attacks by pro-Gbagbo gangs after repeated broadcasts on state television accused them of backing pro-Ouattara rebels. Gbagbo is furious with the mission for recognising Ouattara’s win.”

There is a great benefit to aid organizations maintaining neutrality during conflicts, something the ICRC does particularly well. However, any shrinking of the humanitarian space is more complicated than simply western militaries attempting to accomplish their mission with the carrot instead the stick. Rather, it can be caused by the involvement of any non-neutral organization in the provision of humanitarian aid during conflicts. Picking a side comes with a prize, regardless of who does the picking.