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Côte d’Ivoire and the ICC: What hope for the victims?

by Francis Dako, Africa coordinator and Linda Gueye, head of Communications at the Coalition for the ICC on 07 Mar 2013 | Comments

Laurent Gbagbo made major headlines the last few weeks with the opening of an important hearing in his case before the ICC but little was said about what victims can hope for now that Côte d’Ivoire has joined the Court.

Since 2002, Côte d’Ivoire has suffered years of political crisis and violence which reached a boiling point with the November 2010 presidential election. While incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo was proclaimed the winner, his opponent Alassane Ouattara vehemently disputed the result, claimed victory and was recognized as the legitimate winner by the UN and the international community. Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power to what he considered a fraudulent election led to a military offensive against the capital Abidjan by Ouattara’s forces, ending with the capture of Gbagbo on 11 April 2011. Eight months later, Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague where he is currently held and waiting for a decision from the Court on whether he will go on trial.

Gbagbo is accused of being an indirect co-perpetrator of crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Côte d’Ivoire between December 2010 and April 2011. He is the first former head of state detained at the ICC. Several human rights reports have indicated that both Gbagbo’s and Ouattara’s forces have committed serious human rights violations, including rape, looting and destruction of homes, torture and murder, among others. In Abidjan, Gbagbo’s troops reportedly attacked and killed civilians identified or perceived to be Ouattara supporters and in the north-western part of the country where Ouattara’s forces started their military offensive, they reportedly killed civilians identified or perceived to be Gbagbo supporters. Around 3,000 civilians died and over one million fled during the post-election violence.

Difficult path to reconciliation

Côte d’Ivoire is trying to recover from years of political crisis and instability and reconcile a population that is still strongly divided. The wounds are still fresh and the path to reconciliation may be very difficult. Although Gbagbo is accused of serious crimes by the ICC prosecutor, he remains very popular in Côte d’Ivoire and many still consider him their president. The opening of his confirmation of charges hearing on 19 February was attended by a delegation of pro-Gbagbo supporters which was widely covered by national media. Additionally, the ICC has so far only issued two arrest warrants for crimes against humanity in Côte d’Ivoire, one for Laurent Gbagbo and another for former first lady Simone Gbagbo, who is currently detained in Côte d’Ivoire. Ivorian and international human rights organizations warned that the ICC could be blamed for applying victor’s justice if only presumed pro-Gbagbo perpetrators are prosecuted.

The interest of victims

So much is said about Laurent Gbagbo and the ICC, but what about the victims of the post-election violence? What about the victims of other crimes committed since 2002? Although the first indictments are related to the post-election violence, the ICC investigation also covers the years 2002-2010, meaning that the Court could seek to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes allegedly committed during that period of time. This could allow more victims to participate in ICC proceedings, but since in practice not all victims will be able to seek justice and reparation at the Court, it is crucial that national courts have the capacity to prosecute international crimes and provide relief to victims.

Côte d’Ivoire and the ICC

Côte d’Ivoire made a major step forward in this regard when it ratified the Rome Statute on 15 February 2013. Interestingly, the government of then-president Gbagbo was the one that recognized the jurisdiction of the ICC on the territory of Côte d’Ivoire in April 2003 under Article 12 of the Rome Statute – the ICC’s founding treaty. In 2010, President Ouattara reaffirmed his government’s acceptance of ICC jurisdiction, and after a series of legal and constitutional hurdles, Côte d’Ivoire became the latest African country to join the ICC as a state party to the Rome Statute. Now that it has done so, Côte d’Ivoire has a chance to demonstrate its commitment to the fight against impunity. It should work toward implementing the Rome Statute into domestic law as soon as possible so that national courts are equipped to prosecute all the perpetrators of the crimes committed since 2002. As a state party to the Court, Côte d’Ivoire has the obligation to cooperate with the Court in arresting and sending any ICC suspect to The Hague, including Simone Gbagbo, the ICC’s first female indictee.

Côte d’Ivoire is still in the middle of a healing process that may be very long, especially if the ICC focuses its investigation on only one side of the conflict.  But by joining the ICC and opening the door to strengthening the national judicial system, Côte d’Ivoire will get one step closer to helping bring justice to victims and stop the culture of impunity.

By Francis Dako, Africa coordinator and Linda Gueye, head of Communications at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court