The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has called on the United Nations to “use all necessary means” to protect the lives of civilians in Ivory Coast, which seems poised to return to civil war because the incumbent leader, President Laurent Gbagbo, refuses to step down from power after losing Nov. 28, 2010 elections to his rival, Alassane Ouattara.
The African Union, the UN, and the nations of ECOWAS have declared the elections free and fair and declared Mr. Ouattara the winner, but armed forces loyal to Mr. Gbagbo continue to control much of the southern half of the country, including Abidjan, which remains the country's power center despite no longer being the capital and has become a violently divided city. More than 450 civilians have been killed, mainly by pro-Gbagbo forces and militias, since the election and up to 1 million civilians have been forced from their homes by the fighting, according to the UN.
In a statement issued by ECOWAS after its Thursday meeting, West African leaders requested that the UN Security Council "strengthen the mandate of the United Nations' Operation in [Ivory Coast], enabling the Mission to use all necessary means to protect life and property and to facilitate the immediate transfer of power to Mr. Alassane Ouattara."
The ECOWAS communiqué stopped short of calling specifically for a no-fly zone – like the one implemented in Libya that allows Western forces to shoot down any Libyan military aircraft that take to the skies to attack rebels or protestors – but the French government, in its own draft proposal submitted Friday to the UN Security Council, called for a ban on the use of heavy weapons such as artillery by Ivorian forces. Human rights groups say that pro-Gbagbo forces have shelled pro-Ouattara neighborhoods in Abidjan in recent weeks.
Mounting death toll
The growing attention to Ivory Coast is a welcome change for human rights activists who have watched with frustration as the death toll in Ivory Coast mounts, but international attention remains focused on the conflicts in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen and the aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami. Efforts by the African Union to resolve the conflict, most recently in a fact-finding mission by five African presidents in early March, have all failed. Gbagbo still refuses to step down, as the AU has urged.
“The situation in Ivory Coast is falling into civil war,” said Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights, in a recent statement. “The international community must act faster and stronger in order to ensure international humanitarian law and human rights are fully respected, and to prevent massive human rights violations.”
Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher on West Africa for Human Rights Watch’s office in Dakar, Senegal, said that the UN needs to act on its promise to add 2,000 peacekeepers to the current UN Operations in Ivory Coast and to prevent the use of violent hate speech by pro-Ggabgo supporters on Ivorian state radio and television.
“The international community must show that their concern and will to act extends to the plight of civilians in Ivory Coast,” Ms. Dufka said in a joint statement with other human rights organizations. “The failure to act could cost thousands of lives.”
While there are few of the natural resources in Ivory Coast that may attract the attention of international investors – Ivory Coast is better known for being a major supplier of the world’s cocoa than for strategic assets like oil and natural gas, which it also produces – the ghost of other neglected civil wars seems to be driving human rights groups and other African nations to push hard for a solution in Ivory Coast, which still hasn't completely recovered from a civil war that began more than a decade ago after a coup brought down the government of its first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in 1999.
Until the coup, Ivory Coast was known for its strong economy and its ability to maintain harmonious relations between the mainly Muslim but impoverished north and its prosperous and Christian south. But discontent among Muslim soldiers broke out into full rebellion in September 2002, leading to a two-year civil war between north and south that killed thousands. The November 2010 elections were supposed to be the final piece of a five-year peace process meant to put Ivory Coast back on a path toward political normalization and economic recovery.
An African solution?
Even southern African nations far from Ivory Coast called for an end to hostilities. Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos dropped his previous support of Gbagbo and threw his country’s support behind Ouattara, bringing his country’s position into line with that of the rest of the AU. This week, a meeting of leaders from the Southern Africa Customs Union – made up of South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and Swaziland – spoke sharply against what it termed “foreign” intervention in Ivory Coast and urged instead that African leaders be allowed to sort out the problem themselves.
In an interview with the Monitor, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba called for the African Union and ECOWAS to quickly find a solution to the Ivorian crisis, saying that fighting was taking the lives of innocent people. But Mr. Pohamba also sharply condemned the UN-approved no-fly zone over Libya, claiming that it would put civilians in further danger.
"What is happening in Libya is not pleasing anyone, but we call for those involved in the conflict to give the African Union a chance to resolve African problems,” says Mr. Pohamba, who also called Muammar Qaddafi’s use of his military against Libyan civilians “unacceptable.”
"We are deeply concerned and disappointed by the loss of life as a result of the ongoing airstrikes by coalition forces," he said.