Laurent Gbagbo To Face Trial at International Criminal Court

A majority of the three judges of the International Criminal Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber I have issued a decision confirming the charges against former Ivoirian president Laurent Gbagbo, who will now face trial for crimes against humanity. Laurent Gbagbo, who was Côte d’Ivoire’s head of state from 2000 to 2011, is being tried for crimes committed during the 2010-2011 crisis following the hotly contested December 2010 presidential election. Prosecutors have focused on four distinct incidents that occurred between December 2010 and April 2011, where there is sufficient evidence to commit him to trial.

The decision is not only significant in terms of ensuring justice for the crimes perpetrated against the Ivoirian people by pro-Gbagbo forces in the post-election crisis, but is also a milestone in international criminal justice: it is the first time that a former head of state is facing trial at the International Criminal Court. Of course, the trial has not yet begun and Gbagbo has not been convicted, and the prosecution is not guaranteed to succeed. One of the three judges wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that there wasn’t a realistic chance of conviction based on the available evidence. Beyond the potential lack of evidence or reliable witness testimony, Gbagbo’s defense lawyer is also arguing that the real culprit in the 2010-2011 election debacle was France. “It will be a trial of Francafrique“, Gbagbo’s lawyer told AFP. Indeed, France did play a critical role in Côte d’Ivoire – and not just during the post-election crisis. French forces have been deployed in Côte d’Ivoire for years, and supported the ousting of Gbagbo. The long-term, complex relationship between France and Côte d’Ivoire will likely have a central role in the upcoming trial.

This milestone for Ivoirian reconciliation and for international justice is however mitigated by the fact that no criminal proceedings – nationally or internationally – are investigating the responsibility of pro-Ouattara forces during the post-election crisis. At the time, advocacy and human rights groups argued that both sides were responsible for their share of violence and crimes. However, with Ouattara now president of Côte d’Ivoire, there have been over 150 convictions for pro-Gbagbo forces and supporters (including nine in military court), and yet no arrests or charges laid against any pro-Ouattara forces. If sustainable peace is to prevail in Côte d’Ivoire, justice cannot be one-sided. As noted by Param-Preet Singh, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch, “If Côte d’Ivoire’s history is any guide, leaving one side of the conflict largely untouched by justice risks sowing the seeds for future conflict.”