Does Conflict Produce Winners and Losers? Or Just Survivors?

Ivory Coast is bypassing the courts as it recovers from a decade of violence—posing a challenge to the international justice system.
Refugees mourn the death of a relative at a camp in western Ivory Coast during the country's post-election violence in 2011. (Reuters/Luc Gnago)

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast—At 5 a.m. on a recent Sunday, I ate grilled chicken and drank Solibra beer with friends at an outdoor stand along a road that connects the vast working-class district of Abobo with the more upscale Angré neighborhood in this metropolis of 5 million, the economic capital of Ivory Coast. It had been a long night, nothing unusual in Abidjan, where entertainment, informal commerce, and street life rumble on around the clock. Clusters of early-morning eaters sat near us at low wooden tables. The road traffic was light at that hour, but plenty of orange taxis passed by, slowing in search of a fare.

There wasn’t a police officer in sight—nor, for that matter, a soldier or vigilante. The scene felt normal and safe. But just three years ago, it had looked starkly different. Ahmed, a friend at our table, gestured down the road and then back to us. “We’re drinking here now,” he said. “You should have seen this place during the crisis. Abobo emptied out. All along this street, there was nothing but people walking, carrying whatever they could.”


Between December 2010 and April 2011, political violence paralyzed Abidjan, killing an estimated 3,000 people and scattering more than 370,000 as the city—the second-largest in West Africa, and a major port and business hub—nearly imploded. Committing executions, rapes, and disappearances, security forces swept through opposition strongholds and local militias skirmished. The crisis began when the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to concede defeat in a November 2010 runoff to his rival Alassane Ouattara, the winner according to the country’s election commission. Defying the United Nations and most of the international community, Gbagbo clung to power until former rebels, in control of northern Ivory Coast since a 2002 civil war, advanced south, picking off loyalists with the support of French and UN troops. Gbagbo was finally extracted from his fortified residence in April 2011, leaving Ouattara to assume control of a country in utter disarray.

A woman dries palm seeds in Dabou, 30 miles from Abidjan. (Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon)

Today, life in Abidjan shows remarkably few traces of these events. Ouattara is presiding over 9-percent growth and a revival of Ivory Coast’s political and economic clout, which was once considerable in the region but has shriveled over the last decade. Investors are flocking back, attracted by the country’s rich agriculture—it’s the world’s largest cocoa producer and exports many other crops—and mining potential. French, Chinese, and Tunisian firms are completing infrastructure projects, including Abidjan’s long-awaited third lagoon bridge. The African Development Bank is moving back to its Abidjan headquarters. As the country comes back to life, Gbagbo and two of his closest allies face charges of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ivory Coast’s courts, meanwhile, have charged 150 civilian and military figures for crimes committed during the crisis, and a truth commission is hearing victim testimonials.

But in Ivory Coast (officially known as Côte d'Ivoire), the delivery of post-conflict justice appears to be at odds with the restoration of peace and economic development. While investors and creditors praise the government’s performance, human-rights groups warn of “winner’s justice”—of the ICC and Ivorian courts prosecuting only Gbagbo’s camp while leaving warlords and militia leaders who supported Ouattara unpunished. And now, even this one-sided justice may be in jeopardy. In the last few months, the government has cut a series of political deals, freeing key Gbagbo aides and luring others back from exile. Instead of bolstering the norms of post-conflict justice that institutions like the ICC were set up to enforce, the still-fragile revival of this crucial West African nation may do just the opposite. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


The need for post-conflict justice in Ivory Coast was identified as soon as the crisis ended, not only by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but also by the new government, which requested an ICC investigation as early as May 2011. The purpose of the ICC, which was set up in 2002 under a treaty that now counts 122 members, is to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity when local prosecution is unlikely or difficult. In October 2011, the ICC determined that the post-election events met its standard for prosecution, in a report that detailed numerous atrocities—the majority by pro-Gbagbo forces, but many by pro-Ouattara forces as well—that had occurred in Abidjan and a volatile region of western Ivory Coast. The prosecution indicted Gbagbo soon after—as an “indirect co-perpetrator” responsible for murder, rape and sexual violence, “persecution,” and “other inhuman acts”—and he was transferred to The Hague in November 2011. The court later issued indictments on similar charges for Gbagbo’s wife, Simone Ehivet Gbagbo, and the militia leader Charles Blé Goudé. The ICC has left open the possibility of prosecuting atrocities committed during and after the country’s 2002 civil war, but for now it is limiting itself to the 2010-11 post-election events, which it says may yield additional indictments.

The Gbagbo case is one of the most high-profile the ICC has ever undertaken: He is the first former head of state to appear before the court, and the only one it has ever held in custody. (The detention facility in The Hague has also hosted Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia’s Charles Taylor, but separate international tribunals tried their cases.) And the proceedings against the former Ivorian leaders have moved relatively quickly. Most recently, the prosecutor, Gambian jurist Fatou Bensouda, submitted a hefty file of additional evidence that the judges had requested, and this week, the defense submitted confidential counter-arguments for dismissing the case. The judges will now either set a date for Gbagbo’s trial or dismiss the charges if they deem the prosecutor’s case insufficient.

Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo attends a pre-trial hearing at the International Criminal Court. (Michael Kooren/Reuters)

Evaluated on its own merits, the Gbagbo case thus far encapsulates the ICC’s mission. First, it holds a leader responsible for atrocities committed down the chain of command. Second, it affords the defense a meticulous and smooth process to respond to the charges that in principle should assure a fair trial. In these ways, it upholds standards of post-conflict justice that have their roots in the Nuremberg trials after World War II and have become more defined over the last two decades with the formation of special international tribunals after the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, ultimately producing a permanent body in the form of the ICC. Indeed, even though some major powers (notably the U.S., China, Russia, and India) refuse to join the ICC because they do not want to expose their nationals to prosecution, the court’s broad membership—including most of Europe and Latin America, and much of Africa—testifies to the spread of these standards. The core idea that justifies the existence of the tribunal is that acts of violence against civilians during conflicts are crimes, and warrant prosecution and punishment.

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Siddhartha Mitter is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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