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From the Fall Democracy issue
By Robbie Corey-Boulet
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—It was long past midnight when a truck belonging to the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI) pulled up to a small, open-air restaurant in Duékoué, a town of 75,000 in the country’s west. The crowd that night in March was mostly young men, many of them drinking and dancing to club tracks played by a local disc jockey. Not long after the soldiers’ arrival, 16 of the men, including the DJ, were rounded up for arrest. Although no reason was given, the men went willingly, even helping to push the truck when it would not start on its own.
The men were taken to a drab three-floor hotel on the town’s main road that serves as local headquarters for the FRCI, the national army under President Alassane Ouattara, who came to power in May 2011. Five were released upon arrival. But the remaining 11, members of the Guéré ethnic group, who largely supported incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo in the country’s disputed November 2010 election, were told to strip and hand over their belongings. They spent the night crammed in a six-foot-by-six-foot guard post with boarded-up windows. The following morning, the detainees lined up in the hotel’s concrete courtyard, and the local FRCI chief, Kone Daouda, called the DJ forward. Fernand Gninin, a 38-year-old detainee, recalls that the chief was apparently angry that the DJ had spoken out against alleged FRCI abuses during his set the night before. According to Gninin and others present, Daouda began kicking the DJ while declaring, “I’m going to show you that Duékoué is under my control.”
One by one, soldiers abused the other men, too. Gninin says that one held his head to the asphalt with a booted foot while another beat his bare back with an orange pole, leaving multiple scars. It took several days and a stream of appeals from local community leaders before the detainees were released.
There are many in Duékoué who would call them lucky. During the six months of violence triggered by the last election, the FRCI earned a reputation for human rights abuses and general beyond-the-law brutishness. In the first year after Ouattara became president, FRCI soldiers in the western region remained notorious not just for arbitrary arrests and beatings but for extrajudicial killings targeting Gbagbo supporters. In early May, community leaders provided a list of 18 such killings they said had occurred in the first four months of this year alone.
Many of the cases on the list highlight the arbitrariness and speed that are the frequent hallmarks of state terror. François Gboblemeu, 50, was taken from his home by FRCI soldiers one night in late March, about a week after the raid involving the DJ. His wife, Ange Fie, remembers that the soldiers used vague language when she asked what Gboblemeu had done wrong, saying only that he had been involved in “outside actions,” which she took to mean anti-government militia activity. She knew nothing of this, and no evidence was provided to back up the claim. The next day, Gboblemeu’s son was called to identify the body after it had been discovered two kilometers away. “He was nude,” the young man recalls. “There was only a piece of cloth on him. His head was exploded.” Such disappearances were frightening enough during the crisis of 2010-11, but the fact that they were still occurring in Duékoué more than a year after the ousted president had been detained under orders of his successful rival, and therefore outside the context of armed conflict, made them even more unsettling.
FORMULA FOR VIOLECE
The post-election violence in Ivory Coast, which lasted from December 2010 to May 2011, seemed to fit a formula. There was a vote. There was a disputed result. There was a leader, in this case Gbagbo, who refused to cede power despite having lost. There were rebels eager to take up arms against the state, and mercenaries willing, for the right price, to fight for either side. There were targeted attacks against specific tribes. There were indiscriminate attacks against civilians. And in the end, there were the numbers that provide some sense of scale—3,000 dead, more than 150 raped, hundreds of thousands displaced. These elements together make up a somewhat standard incident of political violence—universally seen as unfortunate but rarely marked by any form of meaningful response.
Except that Ivorians were promised a different outcome. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, then chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, filed a request in June 2011 to launch an investigation of the post-election violence, and judges gave their approval in October. Meanwhile, Ouattara, the victor, vowed to cooperate with the ICC while also pressing for balanced justice at the local level, seemingly lessening the likelihood that perpetrators—even those who supported him—would benefit from impunity. With this combined effort, the argument went, both the expertise of the ICC and the local buy-in associated with domestic trials could be brought to bear on the justice process, thereby helping ensure that the root causes of the conflict could be resolved. This hasn’t happened.
After one year under Ouattara, officials’ early statements on how justice would play out had begun to seem less like firm commitments and more like vows made during, and restricted to, the heady first days of peacetime and a new administration. Ouattara still speaks of balanced justice. And the notoriously painstaking process of bringing ICC cases to trial continues to unfold. The decade-old institution even achieved a milestone in November 2011, when Gbagbo became the first former head of state to be taken into its custody. But the only people implicated in proceedings at both the national and international levels were members of Gbagbo’s camp. None of Ouattara’s out-of-control followers, including members of the official armed forces under his control, have been charged or even credibly investigated.
In the eyes of many Gbagbo supporters, the credibility of the international community has already been damaged by military intervention on the part of France and the UN at the height of the crisis. The arrest of Gbagbo on April 11, 2011, after 10 days of fighting in Abidjan, was precipitated by an attack on his residence carried out by French forces earlier in the day. World leaders saw the intervention as a way to minimize the slaughter of civilians and quickly resolve an escalating conflict; U.S. President Barack Obama singled out the UN and France for praise in a statement released after Gbagbo was taken into custody. They may have been right. But the more than 40 percent of voters who wanted Gbagbo to be president see the involvement of these forces not as an impartial bid to stop the bleeding but rather as an obvious choosing of sides. The potential acquiescence by the international community to one-sided justice would thus be seen by a large chunk of the population as the continuation of a narrative stretching back to before the conflict ended.
Instead of receiving constructive transitional justice, Ivorians have so far received a form of justice that only legitimizes the new Ouattara regime. This raises the question of just what kind of behavior such “victor’s justice” might enable. The ongoing abuses in the west—arbitrary abductions, beatings, and killings—are the early answers. Here, after all, were military forces suspected of involvement in atrocities committed during the post-election violence, and instead of being prosecuted, they have been given free rein to commit new outrages while ostensibly combating threats against the state. The potential implications for long-term peace are clear during interviews with the leaders of those groups that have been regularly victimized by the FRCI, most of whom, fearing reprisals, speak on the condition of anonymity. “We are very much in favor of reconciliation, but it looks like the mission of the FRCI in this region is to exterminate all the youth,” says one community leader. “What we ask the authorities to do is to let the Guéré people live,” says another. “Now there are just these cold killings. How can we go on with true peace in these conditions?”
PEACE THROUGH JUSTICE?
This past July marked 10 years since the creation of the ICC, the world’s first permanent court set up to try cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. In March, judges reached their first verdict in the case of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga, who was found guilty of recruiting and deploying child soldiers and later given a 14-year prison sentence. Closing arguments in a second Congo trial were heard in May. Last year, around the height of the Arab Spring, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to give the court jurisdiction over crimes committed in Libya, marking the first time the United States and China had endorsed ICC action. This was seen as evidence that major powers once hostile to the court were softening their stances, a trend that began with the Security Council’s 2005 vote on crimes in Darfur, Sudan, when the United States and China abstained so that investigations could proceed.
The Sudan case, however, also betrayed the ICC’s lack of enforcement powers—a frequent focus of the court’s many detractors. More than three years since an arrest warrant was issued for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity—later expanded to include genocide—he remains in power. Sudan is not a member of the ICC, but Bashir has freely visited such member countries as Chad and Malawi that are required to arrest him under the terms of the ICC’s founding treaty. In neighboring Kenya, an investigation into post-election violence that occurred in 2007-08 has prompted attempts to orchestrate a mass African exodus from the court and, more recently, to move relevant cases to African soil. And in Libya, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Muammar Gaddafi, is being held in the mountain town of Zintan amid uncertainty over where and when he might get a court date.
At the core of the ICC’s mission is the principle of complementarity, which holds that the institution should serve as a “court of last resort,” acting only when governments lack the capacity or willingness—or both—to try suspects themselves. Moreover, the court is designed to try only the biggest cases, with smaller ones falling to national courts. In this way, legal proceedings at both the international and national levels share the burden of eliminating impunity for atrocity crimes. However, the events in Sudan, Kenya, and Libya point to an almost existential problem facing the ICC that could threaten its ability to get anything done in those countries. Governments do not always share the court’s values and may, when pressed, try to obstruct its work. What is more, they may be reluctant to implement domestic reforms that could change the conditions that contributed to violence in the first place. Thousands of miles away, a less high-profile manifestation of this same problem appears to be playing out in Ivory Coast.
PEACE VS. CONFLICT
Though the country was long hailed as a post-colonial African success story, the causes of Ivory Coast’s conflict can be traced back decades, to the presidency of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. A former farmer and doctor, he rose to power at the time of the nation’s independence from France in 1960, building on political victories scored during colonial rule. He remained in office more than three decades, a reign marked by economic growth that surpassed all other countries in the region—the “Ivorian miracle.” In addition to Ivorian elites and French business interests, Houphouët-Boigny ensured his country’s wealth reached poor families whose labor helped fuel the boom.
Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, and the ensuing transfer of power was far from smooth. Ambiguities in the constitution led to a power struggle between Henri Konan Bédié, the president of the National Assembly, and Ouattara, Houphouët-Boigny’s prime minister, both of whom tried to claim the top post. The impasse was ultimately resolved in Bédié’s favor, spawning a rivalry between the two men that would have grave repercussions for the national political climate for years to come. And there were ethnic overtones. Advisers to Bédié, a native of central Ivory Coast, invented the concept of ivoirité, or “Ivorianness,” to define Ivorians from the central and southern regions of the country. This concept excluded immigrants and northerners, groups that had been warmly welcomed in Ivory Coast before the economy began to falter in the late 1980s. Embracing the rhetoric of ivoirité, Bédié took advantage of rising xenophobia to prevent Ouattara, a Muslim born in the country’s north who spent much of his childhood in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), from running for president on the grounds that he was not sufficiently Ivorian.
Following a series of military, political, and judicial maneuverings beginning in 1999, rebel groups under the banner of the Forces Nouvelles (New Forces) eventually occupied the northern half of the nation as peace talks between the various parties stumbled—a state of affairs that would prevail for years.
LEGACY OF VIOLENCE
The legacy of ivoirité was plain to see in the 2010-11 conflict. In the west, a region that largely voted for Gbagbo, opposing forces loyal respectively to Ouattara and Gbagbo committed a succession of atrocities. Toward the end, with pro-Ouattara forces moving through the region en route to Abidjan, pro-Gbagbo fighters, including Liberian mercenaries, lingered to inflict final, devastating attacks on northern Ivorians and West African immigrants living in the area. On March 22 last year, mercenaries and pro-Gbagbo militiamen armed with automatic weapons, RPGs, and machetes killed at least 37 West African immigrants in the town of Bédi-Goazon, slaying many inside their homes before looting their valuables. Three days later, in the town of Bloléquin, militiamen and mercenaries killed some 100 northerners and immigrants who had sought shelter in the town prefecture. The ethnic dimension to this attack, and the underlying role played by ivoirité, could not have been more explicit. Those who could speak the language of the local tribe, the Guéré, were spared, while those who could not were killed.
Four days later, on March 29, the western town of Duékoué was home to the most lethal episode of the conflict, committed by forces loyal to Ouattara. That morning, FRCI soldiers and other fighters tore through the town’s Carrefour neighborhood, composed mainly of Guéré families, killing most males they saw regardless of age. They used guns, knives, and machetes, sparing women but setting homes ablaze. A UN probe found that at least 505 people died in Duékoué during the six-month conflict, though the International Committee for the Red Cross put the death toll at more than 800 for the March 29 massacre alone. More than a year later, sitting beside the lumpy earth that covers a mass grave in Carrefour, a rare clearing in a neighborhood otherwise dominated by mud-brick homes and small businesses, a local journalist who witnessed the aftermath shook his head as he recounted the details. “Just like Srebrenica,” he said.
In Abidjan, resentment played out along similar lines. Districts that were home to a large number of Gbagbo supporters, such as the northern district of Yopougon, endured some of the most brutal violence. At roadblocks, pro-Gbagbo fighters would identify northerners, immigrants, or other perceived Ouattara supporters; beat them until they could not longer move; cover their bodies in tires, wood, and gasoline; then burn them alive, often leaving behind only blackened concrete and unidentifiable remains. This became known as an “Article 125” killing—the “125” a reference to the 100 francs (18 cents) required for gas and 25 francs for matches.
There is a section of Yopougon where the ground opens up, forming a chasm walled by rocky escarpment. At the bottom, about 100 meters down, seagulls pick through waste composed mostly of tires, empty bottles, and sewage. From the beginning of Gbagbo’s failed attempt to remain in office, the pit was “packed with corpses,” recalls Ange Aboua, 25, who lives near the edge of it. Some were Article 125 victims. Others had simply been shot and thrown in. After Ouattara’s forces took control of the area, the situation changed little. Only the victims were different.
LOW THRUM PERSISTS
Today, such stories are rare. Though a low thrum of violence persists in the west, both in the form of FRCI-led abuses and cross-border attacks carried out by pro-Gbagbo fighters hiding in Liberia, Ivory Coast has made the transition to a post-conflict country, fragile as it is. As the current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Ouattara is busy leading efforts to defuse fresher conflicts that have broken out in Guinea-Bissau and Mali.
Because of the ongoing ICC proceedings, as well as the repeated assurances from Ouattara that all those suspected of committing crimes will be prosecuted, rights groups and other observers tend to peg the success of the recovery to progress on the justice front. But beyond the arrest of Gbagbo, whose confirmation of charges hearing was recently postponed indefinitely, the ICC process seems to have stalled, at least temporarily. Though other high-profile suspects on the Gbagbo side, including his wife, Simone, remain in Ivorian custody, no visible effort has been made by the ICC to arrest them, sparking speculation that Ouattara’s administration is privately resisting additional cases.
Ouattara has publicly affirmed his commitment to the ICC process, writing two letters to Ocampo accepting the court’s jurisdiction over some post-election violence. But government officials have increasingly argued that the national justice system has been reformed to the point where it has the capacity to fairly try cases that stem from the fighting. In an interview in his Abidjan office, Ouattara’s human rights minister, Gnenema Coulibaly, embraces this position. “When President Gbagbo was transferred to The Hague, the situation was such that the justice institutions did not have the capacity even to detain him and keep him in custody, let alone judge him here,” he says. “Gbagbo even said when he arrived at The Hague that he was feeling more at ease and that his living conditions had improved.”
Much changed in the ensuing months, Coulibaly says. “If a state has proven that it has the capacity to judge its nationals or whoever commits crimes in its territory, there is no need for the ICC to intervene.” But Ali Ouattara (no relation to the president), head of the Ivorian Coalition for the ICC, says recent judicial reforms have been more superficial than substantive, dealing mainly with infrastructure and equipment. “When the human rights minister says he has the capacity, I think it’s not true,” Ouattara says. “It’s not just about buying new judicial infrastructure, new courts, new computers. The reform of justice itself has not begun in Côte d’Ivoire. It’s not about infrastructure. It’s about the penal code itself, about how officials are nominated, that sort of thing.” He suspects the government’s position began to shift once Ocampo received permission from judges in February to extend the investigation back to 2002—increasing the likelihood that fighters aligned to Ouattara would be targeted.
Regardless of the motive, Ali Ouattara and other observers believe any retreat from the ICC process could be disastrous, as the ICC’s credibility in the eyes of many Ivorians hinges on its ability, or willingness, to indict some of the president’s allies. The current situation, with Gbagbo the only named suspect, has left many of his supporters convinced that the sole objective of the ICC has been to remove Ouattara’s rival from the country. “It’s difficult to know exactly what the plan of the government is,” says an official with the UN mission in Ivory Coast, who requests anonymity. “Was it just that they wanted Gbagbo taken away? If they stop at Gbagbo, they will have no credibility, and it will be a failure.”
ONE SIDED AT HOME
The national proceedings have also been one-sided. As of June, at least 120 people suspected of committing post-election crimes had been charged—all former Gbagbo supporters. Coulibaly, the human rights minister, explains this discrepancy by noting that the country’s civilian prosecutor had been focused on charging economic crimes committed against Ouattara’s government—a category naturally limited to Gbagbo supporters. Other crimes, he says, will be prosecuted in accordance with the findings produced by a national commission of inquiry. But this commission does not have the confidence of civil society, in part because most members were promoted by entities under Ouattara’s control (members of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front party were offered positions but turned them down), meaning that pro-Gbagbo civilians might be reluctant to divulge any abuses they witnessed or experienced firsthand.
Post-election violence cases are also being pursued at the national military tribunal. Ange B. Kessi Kouame, the head of the tribunal, says 80 people have been charged in these cases, and 46 are still in custody. He says he’s focusing on events involving clear violation of military policies and orders. The Duékoué massacre, however, would appear to suggest a violation of orders, to say nothing of general military policy, raising the question of whether Kouame intends to investigate FRCI Commander Fofana Losséni, who was in charge of forces implicated in the massacre. Kouame says his office has received no complaints against Losséni. Nor, he adds, have any complaints been filed against Commanders Chérif Ousmane and Ousmane Coulibaly, two military leaders who led operations in the Yopougon district of Abidjan. It does not appear that complaints against these men will be filed anytime soon. Losséni and Ousmane have been promoted since the conflict ended, and Coulibaly retains his post as military commander.
BRING ON THE ELITE
Any resistance to the indictment of pro-Ouattara forces seems to be restricted to the political and military elite. Ordinary Ivorians, even those who hold Gbagbo and his loyalists responsible for the crisis, generally recognize that members of the FRCI and other elements of Ouattara’s military coalition committed crimes and deserve to be prosecuted.
There is an obvious reason why Ouattara would be reluctant to allow charges to be brought against members of the FRCI. The army is made up in large part of former Forces Nouvelles rebels, and if made unhappy they could potentially turn against Ouattara. There’s an implicit threat that those soldiers who could stand to be prosecuted could also stage a coup.
Sitting in a Senegalese coffee stall in the Abidjan district of Abobo one afternoon in late April, seven young men reflect on the period when the district was under siege, taking obvious pride in how they managed to repel many of the Gbagbo forces’ advances. “The resistance started here. The people here were the toughest, the most militant,” boasts Zie Kone, a 36-year-old welder dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt cut off at the sleeves. He lists the many abuses committed by Gbagbo’s fighters—televised threats to “wipe out” the area, use of live bullets fired at peaceful demonstrators, deployment of mercenaries. He also defends Ouattara’s leadership during the period, saying the president did whatever he could to resolve the conflict via peaceful means. “Alassane just defended himself,” Kone says. “He’s not the one who was attacking. He did not order us.” But his fealty to the president does not extend to the pro-Ouattara fighters at the center of allegations put forward by rights groups. “We are not concerned about what happens to all the people who came from the rebellion to help Ouattara.”
Meanwhile, pro-Gbagbo Ivorians describe balanced justice as a crucial precondition for reconciliation. Gathered under a tree beside the Yopougon pit that filled with bodies during the fighting, a group of young Gbagbo supporters said in an interview that they couldn’t possibly view the process as fair unless pro-Ouattara fighters were arrested. But that doesn’t mean they see arrests as likely. “The problem we have is that one year from the violence, it’s only one side that has been indicted,” says Elvis Christian, 27. “We will be at ease if at least some people from the other side are indicted, but that’s not the case so far.”
As they wait to see whether the law will catch up to Ouattara’s loyalists, these same Gbagbo supporters describe growing political tension in the area, making them reluctant to express their views. “The atmosphere is tense,” Aubain Tehe, 27, says. “People are cautious. You cannot speak freely. You don’t know what will happen to you.” Ange Aboua agrees, adding, “It is more the pro-Gbagbo people who are cautious. They don’t trust the government.”
This is exactly the sort of neighborhood-level division that Ouattara says he is intent on addressing, having emphasized the importance of national reconciliation from the moment he took office. Even before the conflict ended, Ouattara pledged to form a Truth, Reconciliation, and Dialogue Commission, an implicit acknowledgment that legal proceedings alone would be insufficient to heal national wounds. But when I ask the Gbagbo supporters if they are following the progress of this and other reconciliation initiatives, they laugh. “It is just for TV,” Tehe says. “It’s not for here. It is just for political reasons.”
POLICE AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
Ouattara has been repeating promises that justice will be administered to all perpetrators of post-election crimes. In April, during his first official visit to the western region of Ivory Coast, he delivered a message of reconciliation to an audience in Duékoué. But observers such as Maurice Gilles, a French aid worker and Yopougon resident who remained in his embattled neighborhood throughout the crisis, downplay the visit’s significance. “If the reconciliation process consists only of big rallies and big ceremonies, it will not be efficient,” Gilles points out. “People need to feel the reconciliation in everyday life. The way the policeman treats them when they go to resolve a dispute, whether people blackmail them simply because they have guns and can do that.”
Rinaldo Depagne, senior West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, believes that, when it comes to reconciliation, changing the way Ivorians from all sides relate to security officials is just as important as providing balanced justice for post-election crimes. This is especially true in the nation’s western regions, where police and gendarmes have not been empowered to resume full policing duties, leaving the FRCI to fill the void. In May, police and gendarmes in Duékoué and other western towns were still not allowed to carry arms, making it impossible for them to take the lead on policing operations.
Kone Daouda, the local FRCI commander in Duékoué, defends his armed soldiers. He says they had successfully taken control of a region rife with
anti-government militias and Liberian mercenaries and faced no choice but to forcefully drive them out. “If we had waited for all of the necessary means to do the job, the job would not have been completed,” he says. “We dealt with what we had.” Daouda acknowledges this process was not always clean. “I’m not going to say there are no extrajudicial killings or human rights violations,” he admits. “I try my best to keep those cases under control, to minimize them.”
To underscore the continuing security challenges in the area, he produces a grisly photo of his bodyguard, who along with another soldier was abducted and killed in late March. The photo shows the bodyguard’s corpse on a black tarp, his genitals cut off, and his head cut open. The brain has been removed. “He was abducted by the youth of this area and killed,” Daouda says, suggesting that the FRCI would not be revising its tactics for tracking down anti-government fighters anytime soon. “We’re managing to capture some, then there are some who may leave the area. But from house to house, they’re trying to come back. We do whatever’s necessary to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The most hard-line Ouattara supporters fail to see how the government is contributing to political tension—how biased justice and malfeasance by security forces are preventing a sustainable peace. Many of these supporters, including high-level officials, place the blame for lingering animosity squarely at the feet of Gbagbo’s followers, who they say are not ready to reconcile and still can’t accept that their president was defeated at the polls. “It is difficult to go into a reconciliation process when people who have committed crimes do not accept responsibility,” says Coulibaly, the human rights minister. “When people will accept responsibility and justice has passed, maybe we can compensate the victims and ask for forgiveness.”
Perhaps the most crucial immediate step would be to expedite a reform of security forces, an essential ingredient for reconciliation at the local level. In April, the UN Security Council authorized exceptions to the country’s arms embargo, a move intended to support training of military and security forces. With the help of donors who have long cited security reform as a top priority, the Ouattara administration should train and equip an effective police force as soon as possible. There are obvious obstacles. Former Forces Nouvelles rebels who have since been incorporated into the FRCI see broad swaths of the civilian population in southern Ivory Coast as the enemy, and the enmity is often mutual. As a result, the military will naturally be reluctant to give up its policing powers. But given the frequency of Ivorians’ interaction with security forces, constructive security reforms could do more to unite the country than any political move.
To avoid violence in the future, Ivory Coast needs a meaningful justice process—a clear holding to account of those who fueled the recent destruction. This means abandoning claims that the national justice system is equipped to handle the most high-profile cases stemming from the post-election crisis. Even if these claims are accurate and the conviction shared by many that recent reforms have been superficial is off the mark, Gbagbo supporters would view local trials of their leaders as evidence of Ouattara going after his enemies to consolidate power. Recent statements, including those from Human Rights Minister Gnenema Coulibaly, suggest, unfortunately, that the Ouattara administration may take this very path.
Though all indictments and potential indictments at The Hague so far are on Gbagbo’s side, there is little doubt that ICC prosecutors intend to indict Ouattara loyalists eventually. The big question is whether Ouattara’s government will cooperate and foster a process of balanced justice at home so that the courts are seen as even-handed at every level.
Countries have generally found that there are no consequences for shunning the ICC. To cite just one example, not only does Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir remain in power, there is mounting evidence that he is freely overseeing new atrocities in the Nuba Mountains (along with Ahmed Haroun, the local governor and a fellow ICC suspect). Other African countries nonetheless continue to defend him. After Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi, threatened to arrest Bashir if he were to attend the African Union’s July summit, originally scheduled to be held in Lilongwe, the body promptly moved the summit to Ethiopia. How can countries that have, in many cases, willingly joined the court dismiss it so easily? The answer can be found, at least in part, in the relationship between the court and major players in the international community.
The American position on the court has evolved from outright disdain in the early years of George W. Bush to cynicism under Obama. The United States now supports the court when the court’s work advances American interests. The United States is still not a member of the court, however. Nor are Russia and China, the two countries currently blocking substantive attempts by the international community to prevent further carnage in Syria. The two other permanent members of the UN Security Council have been better friends to the court, but they, too, have at times worked counter to its interests. Last year, both Britain and France came out in favor of a “zero growth” budget strategy that many observers said would have harmed an institution already stretched thin. This seemed especially puzzling given that both were staunch supporters of the court’s intervention in Libya, an endeavor that forced the court to tap its contingency fund.
By operating above international law, or pursuing budget policies that would seem to undermine it, major powers are setting an example of condescension toward the ICC that other countries choose to follow at their convenience. Unless these same powers take active steps toward signing onto the ICC, or at least giving it sufficient resources to do its work, it is unreasonable to blame the court for failing to solve intractable problems in Ivory Coast and wherever else its mandate may take it.
Robbie Corey-Boulet has covered international justice issues in Cambodia, Kenya, and Liberia. He is currently based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation.
[Photo courtesy of United Nations]