Côte d’Ivoire: UN reinforces peacekeepers as officials warn of risks of genocide

Security Council meets to reinforce UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire

19 January 2011 – The United Nations today reinforced its nearly 9,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire with extra peacekeepers and helicopters, as senior officials called for urgent action to prevent growing post-electoral violence from degenerating into genocide.

In a unanimous resolution adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of force, the Security Council authorized the immediate deployment of an additional 2,000 troops and three armed helicopters in the West African country, where former president Laurent Gbagbo refuses to step down despite the internationally recognized victory of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara in November’s run-off elections.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative and head of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), Y. J. Choi, has said the reinforcements will provide a “rapid reaction capability” essential for the protection of civilians both in Abidjan, where Gbagbo loyalists have launched attacks, and in the country's west, which has seen an outburst of ethnic fighting.

“We remain gravely concerned about the possibility of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing in Côte d’Ivoire,” the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, told a news briefing shortly after the Council vote. “We believe that urgent steps should be taken, in line with the ‘responsibility to protect,’ to avert the risk of genocide and ensure the protection of all those at risk of mass atrocities.”

He noted that the elements that could lead to genocide such as identity-related conflicts over national, racial and religious affiliation are present in Côte d’Ivoire, which is home to mainly Muslim northerners and mainly Christian southerners as well as numerous ethnicities.

“Now it doesn’t mean that when we say these elements are present that we are alleging that genocide is being committed or about to be committed. These for us are indicators of something that could happen and that could escalate,” Mr. Deng said. “Our task therefore is to highlight the concerns for all the relevant UN bodies to respond accordingly and for others, not just within the UN, but internationally.”

He added that these should include regional countries and organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) working together with the UN.

At the same press conference, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the responsibility to protect, Edward Luck, voiced deep concern at allegations that armed forces and militia groups backing opposing camps in the political crisis are recruiting and arming ethnic groups, and at reports of continuing hate speech that appears aimed at inciting violent attacks against particular ethnic and national groups.

Mr. Luck noted that some 25,000 Ivorians have already fled from western Côte d’Ivoire to neighbouring countries and nearly 20,000 others are internally displaced due to ethnic clashes, adding that there is a real risk that such clashes could spread across the country, and if not checked, they could culminate in mass atrocities.

“We fear that we are on the brink of something that could be very ugly, very destructive – but we’re not there yet and there’s still time for the parties to show constraint, to back away, particularly from this incitement of further violence,” Mr. Luck said. “So we have not crossed over the precipice yet, but we’re just fearful that we could get there.”

In its resolution, the Council authorized the additional troop deployment until 30 June as well as the temporary transfer to UNOCI for four weeks of three armed helicopters from the UN peacekeeping mission in neighbouring Liberia, and warned that those responsible for crimes against UN personnel and civilians must be held accountable.

It also extended by four more weeks the temporary redeployment from the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) of three infantry companies and two military utility helicopters sent in connection with the elections, which were meant to be a culminating point in the UNOCI-monitored effort to reunify a country split by a civil war in 2002 into a government-controlled south and a rebel-held north.

Mr. Gbagbo has demanded UNOCI’s withdrawal – which the UN has rejected – and his loyalists have launched mounting attacks against the peacekeepers in Abidjan in what Mr. Choi has called “a very, very hostile” situation. The latest incident took place on Monday night, when Gbagbo loyalists opened fire in the direction of UNOCI vehicles in charge of security for the AU emissary, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

The Council reiterated its authorization for Mr. Choi “to use all necessary means to carry out UNOCI’s mandate, including protection of civilians and to ensure its freedom of movement,” demanded “unhindered and immediate access” for peacekeepers throughout the country, and called for an end to the blockade imposed by Gbagbo forces around the Golf Hotel, in Abidjan, where Mr. Ouattara and members of his government are based under UN protection.

Mr. Choi has likened the situation around the Golf Hotel to a “cat and mouse game” with the presidential guard imposing a severe stranglehold while the regular army and the police allow provisions to pass.

The Council also demanded “without prejudice to freedom of expression” an immediate halt to the use of media, especially state television under Mr. Gbagbo’s control, “to propagate false information and to incite hatred and violence, including against the UN and particularly UNOCI,” and reiterated its readiness to impose targeted sanctions against those obstructing the UN mission.

The UN, AU and ECOWAS have all been trying to resolve the situation, demanding Mr. Gbagbo step down, but it remains deadlocked, with Mr. Gbagbo proposing a power-sharing arrangement, which Mr. Choi has said would be a bad precedent in view of his clear electoral defeat and 18 other elections due in Africa this year. ECOWAS has also mentioned a military option to end the crisis.

Meanwhile, the UN and the International Organisation for Migration today launched a flash appeal for $55 million plan to meet the needs of current and projected refugees from Côte d’Ivoire and their host families in Liberia for the next six months. A flash appeal is a unified request for funds by UN agencies responding to a sudden humanitarian crisis.

“There is an urgent need to boost the humanitarian response without any delay,” the UN Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator for Liberia, Moustapha Soumare, said. “We should not forget that Liberia is in a post-conflict mode and just emerging from a 14-year civil war with presidential elections coming up very soon.”

The $55 million is intended for what is known as the Liberia Emergency Humanitarian Action Plan for 2011, with the largest portion of the appeal – $31 million – being funding sought by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has been providing protection and assistance to refugees, including shelter, camp management, and non-food items.

Mr. Soumare added that the increasing presence of refugees in Liberia is already putting a strain on the Liberian communities hosting them.

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