Deutsche Welle talks to a UN representative in Ivory Coast about the human rights violations being perpetrated there amidst a conflict which receives little international attention.
Guillaume Ngefa of the UN Human Rights Division in Ivory Coast
While unrest continues to hold the Middle East, North Africa and the international media firmly in its grip, a less publicized conflict is being played out in Ivory Coast. Fighting erupted there when former President Laurant Gbagbo refused to step down after electoral defeat. There have been violent clashes between forces loyal to Gbagbo and his opponent Alassane Ouattara, with civilians caught in the cross-fire. Deutsche Welle spoke with Guillaume Ngefa, Deputy Human Rights Director for the United Nations’ operations in Ivory Coast.
Deutsche Welle: What is the current human rights situation in Ivory Coast?
Guillaume Ngefa: The civilian population has fallen victim to a number of human rights violations since the start of the post election crisis. Most have been committed by pro-Gbabgo people, but in some instances by pro-Ouattara forces. The epicenter of this violence is Abidjan, in an area called Abobo, but it is also happening in the west of the country. The priority is to provide protection to civilians who are in imminent danger. As a human rights division we document allegations, verify and confront them.
What kind of human rights violations are you referring to?
There are a number of human rights violations, including cases of summary executions. People have been killed by pro-Gbabgo forces. Since the beginning of the crisis in mid-December we have documented 472 deaths. In recent weeks, pro-Gbabgo forces have been shelling the area of Abobo, and most victims have been civilians. But pro-Ouattara forces, what we call invisible commandos, are also committing summary executions and abducting people. There was a case where an entire village, a pro-Gbabgo village, was emptied of its population and occupied by pro-Ouattara forces. There have been a few cases of rape and there are also cases of arbitrary detention and disappearances. There is a challenge for us at the UN, which has become the enemy of pro-Gbabgo forces. But we have a robust escort which allows us to go into the field and document the facts.
Is it true that a UN helicopter was attacked earlier this week?
It is clear that the helicopter was attacked by pro-Ouattara forces in the West of the country. They did it and were then reminded that any attack against UN staff or UN premises may constitute a crime under international law.
Apart from documenting these crimes, what can you do to help refugees and civilians under threat?
What the mission is doing is conducting preventative patrols where there is a risk of serious attacks against civilians. For the past week we have conducted more than 60 patrols and we are also sending our patrols close to civilians to make sure they will not be targeted.
How do you find out about these human rights violations?
We have established a call center that enables us to get information, to be warned of what is going on. We can then take prompt action to protect the civilian population.
Do people call up and say that they felt threatened and ask for help?
Absolutely, they call us to warn us about possible attacks. If we are sure that it is true, we immediately dispatch a patrol to the area. At least it prevents attacks against the civilian population.
Are people aware of this helpline and the UN mission and the work it does?
Since the human rights call center was established on the 15th December we have already received 9000 calls from civilians. It is a 24 hour line. We receive calls from all over the place, from the north, the east, the south, from Abijan and from villages as well.
Countries in the Middle East and North Africa, especially Libya, are getting a lot of media coverage at the moment, but Ivory Coast, where violent fighting has led to huge numbers of civilians being killed and displaced in recent months, has attracted very little international attention. Why do you think that is?
I don't have an answer. It is up to you as a journalist to make sure the information is disseminated. We in Ivory Coast do our work, we inform the international community on the gravity of the situation, mostly in the area of human rights. It is up to the international community to take appropriate action. My hope is that the crisis will end quite soon and that that will give people of Ivory Coast their right to peace and development.
Interview: Anke Rasper/tkw
Editor: Matt Hermann