3 January 2013

West Africa: Liberia Takes Action On Cross-Border Attacks Into Côte d'Ivoire - Human Rights Watch Helped Spur Government to Take Action

Photo: L'Observateur Palaga
Ivorian militia.

press release

In June, Human Rights Watch reported that dozens of former Ivorian and Liberian combatants loyal to the previous Ivorian government were using Liberia as a base to launch raids into Côte d'Ivoire.

There, they targeted civilians perceived as supporting President Alassane Ouattara. We reported that since July 2011, attackers killed at least 50 people during these raids and displaced thousands more.

After interviewing some of the fighters, Human Rights Watch warned that more cross-border raids were likely, as the forces remained mobilized and were recruiting. Two days after we publicized this information, 7 United Nations peacekeepers and at least 10 civilians were killed in yet another cross-border attack into Côte d'Ivoire.

This time Liberian authorities reacted quickly. They initiated investigations and between June and October arrested at least 17 militants allegedly involved in cross-border attacks. Several media outlets cited Human Rights Watch's work as crucial in spurring the government to take effective action.

Côte d'Ivoire's November 2010 presidential election sparked six months of grave human rights abuses, after the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to recognize results proclaiming Ouattara the victor. At least 3,000 people were killed in violence often waged along political and ethnic lines, with armed forces on both sides implicated in war crimes and probable crimes against humanity. Gbagbo was arrested by pro-Ouattara forces in April 2011 and transferred that November to the International Criminal Court, where he faces charges for four counts of crimes against humanity.

At the height of the Ivorian conflict, more than 180,000 people fled into neighboring Liberia. The vast majority sought refuge from the fighting in western Côte d'Ivoire, but hundreds of those who crossed were former pro-Gbagbo militiamen implicated in atrocities. Some of these former fighters are now key players in the cross-border raids that have targeted civilians along with Ivorian security forces. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, these fighters described their continuing hostility to the Ouattara government as well as a desire to seek vengeance for crimes committed by pro-Ouattara forces.

Human Rights Watch interviewed local residents and pro-Gbagbo fighters who told us about a camp near the Liberian-Ivorian border used to stage attacks. One witness said that the recruitment of fighters in the border area was "an open secret." Our reporting exposed the high level of organization among those involved in the attacks, including some financial support from individuals in Ghana - to which many pro-Gbagbo military and civilian leaders fled after the Ivorian conflict.

In an effort to root out these armed groups, the Liberian army has also been deployed to the area, its first major operation since the end of Liberia's civil war in 2003.

Human Rights Watch will continue to call on the Liberian government to prosecute or extradite - in accordance with international human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law - militants who use Liberia as a base to attack civilians in Côte d'Ivoire.

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