In 2011, with Côte d'Ivoire's post-election crisis in full flow, Fatou Diabaté (not her real name) was raped in Abidjan by soldiers loyal to Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo. She courageously told her story to human rights groups, like our own, hoping to draw the world's attention to the plight of Ivorian victims.
Years later, she traveled thousands of miles to The Hague, where Gbagbo was on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. In the witness box, she relived her story in front of the court's foreign judges and lawyers, and with Gbagbo and his former youth minister, Charles Blé Goudé, close by.
Gbagbo and Blé Goudé's trial for crimes against humanity began in early 2016. Over the next few years, the prosecution called dozens of witnesses and presented thousands of pages of documentary evidence. But on January 15, ICC judges dismissed the cases against both Gbagbo and Blé Goudé. While underscoring that serious crimes had occurred in Côte d'Ivoire, two out of the three judges were not convinced that the prosecution had established the link between the abuses on the ground and the former president and his co-accused.
The window for justice for the post-election crimes has been shrinking, both at the ICC and in Côte d'Ivoire. But Diabaté's story reminds us that we should not forget how much suffering Cote d'Ivoire's post-election crisis caused. A disputed 2010 presidential election led to a conflict between forces loyal to Gbagbo and the current president, Alassane Ouattara, leaving more than 3,000 people dead.
Pro-Gbagbo militiamen and elite security forces targeted hundreds of real and perceived supporters of Ouattara, beat them to death with bricks, executed them by gunshot at pointblank range, or burned them alive. The Republican Forces loyal to Ouattara executed hundreds of men from ethnic groups aligned with Gbagbo and tortured dozens of others. Both sides perpetrated sexual violence.
ICC judges have a duty to respect fair trial rights and can only make decisions based on the evidence before them. For victims, though, the decision is a bitter pill to swallow. "I invested so much in this case," Diabété said. "I traveled across Abidjan to tell my story, when the crisis was at its peak and it was dangerous to even leave my house. I went to The Hague to testify. And yet this is the outcome?"
The ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is appealing the court's decision, and said that, "the plight of the victims in Côte d'Ivoire [is] foremost and always on our minds." But the decision comes on the back of repeated failures by the ICC and the Ivorian government to hold to account those responsible for the awful crimes committed during the post-election crisis.
More than seven years after the ICC investigation began, the prosecutor still hasn't brought charges against any of the pro-Ouattara commanders allegedly implicated in the killings and rape committed by their own forces, reinforcing an impression of one-sided justice.
Ivorian judges have spent years courageously investigating the crimes of the post-election crisis, and had charged many senior army commanders and political officials, both from the Gbagbo and the Ouattara side. But last August, President Ouattara announced an amnesty that human rights groups fear will entrench widespread impunity.
There are still some paths to justice for Ivorian victims. As well as appealing Gbagbo and Blé Goudé's acquittal, the ICC prosecutor may yet file charges for crimes committed by pro-Ouattara forces during the crisis. Ouattara's amnesty law states that the amnesty does not apply to individuals who are "members of the military and armed groups," which could be construed to exclude key perpetrators from both sides. President Ouattara should make clear, if necessary through additional legislation, that the amnesty does not apply to those implicated in war crimes or crimes against humanity, and allow Ivorian judges to move forward with trials in national courts.
In the aftermath of the post-election crisis, President Ouattara promised to end the impunity that was a central cause of the 2010-11 violence. But nearly a decade later, and with the 2020 presidential elections fast approaching, Ivorian victims have every right to be disappointed in the lack of justice. The Ivorian government, and the ICC, have so far failed in their duty to fully investigate and prosecute the human rights abuses of the post-election crisis. They should redouble their efforts to meet their obligations to victims and forestall a new round of violence.
This commentary is co-signed by:
Mausi Segun, Africa Director at Human Rights Watch,
and Drissa Traoré, vice president of The International Federation for Human Rights.