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2011-04-12

Human Rights Concerns Continue After Capture of Ivory Coast Strongman Laurent Gbagbo

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Supporters of the internationally recognized Ivory Coast president, Alassane Ouattara, have captured strongman Laurent Gbagbo, ending a four-month standoff that left hundreds dead. Gbagbo had refused to leave office since the country’s presidential election in November, which the United Nations says Ouattara won. Although the political standoff has come to a close, Ivory Coast remains in deep turmoil. At least 1,000 people are thought to have died, and around one million people have fled their homes during the fighting. Many of the displaced have little access to food and shelter and live in dire conditions. Thousands of Gbagbo supporters remain armed and on the streets. We are joined by Corinne Dufka, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, and Elizabeth Dickinson of Foreign Policy magazine. Last month, Dickinson traveled under a United Nations Foundation grant to Liberia, where some 125,000 Ivorians have fled. She has also reported on how the Christian right in the United States has supported Gbagbo, including Pat Robertson and several evangelical members of Congress. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to another top story today, the Ivory Coast, where supporters of the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, have captured strongman Laurent Gbagbo, ending a four-month standoff that has left hundreds dead. Gbagbo had refused to leave office since the Ivory Coast presidential election in November, which the United Nations says Ouattara won.

On Sunday night and into Monday morning, French and United Nations helicopters pounded the presidential offices and the palatial residence where Gbagbo had been holed up for days. He finally surrendered when Outtara’s forces stormed his residence, sending out an aide with a white handkerchief to signal his defeat.

The Ivory Coast’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Youssoufou Bamba, celebrated Gbagbo’s capture.

YOUSSOUFOU BAMBA: It is my pleasure to announce officially that the former president of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo, has been arrested, is well and alive, and will be brought to justice. The operation of arrest of Mr. Gbagbo has been conducted by the Ivorian forces. I repeat it. I’m clear about that. No confusion whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: Shortly afterwards, Ouattara addressed the Ivory Coast with an appeal for calm, urging militias to disarm, and a pledge to start legal proceedings against Gbagbo.

PRESIDENT-ELECT ALASSANE OUATTARA: [translated] I ask all my fellow citizens to do all they can so peace comes back for good to our country. Today, a white page opens in front of us, white as the white of our flag, a symbol of hope and peace. And it is together that we are going to write our history, in reconciliation and forgiveness.

AMY GOODMAN: Although the political standoff has come to a close, Ivory Coast remains in deep turmoil. At least a thousand people are thought to have died, and around a million people have fled their homes during the fighting. Many of the displaced have little access to food and shelter and are living in dire conditions. Thousands of Gbagbo supporters remain armed and on the streets.

We’re joined now by two guests. Corinne Dufka is a senior researcher at the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, joining us from Dakar, Senegal. And here in New York, we’re joined by Elizabeth Dickinson of Foreign Policy magazine. Last month, she traveled under a U.N. Foundation grant to Liberia, where over 125,000 Ivorians have fled.

Let’s go first to Corinne. What is the latest you understand is happening right now in Ivory Coast, with the capture of, the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo?

CORINNE DUFKA: Well, it’s not exactly clear where he is at this moment. President Ouattara has said that — said at one point that he will go to the north of the country. There are very pressing security issues that remain in Ivory Coast. There are a few thousand members of that security forces who of course were backing Gbagbo until last moment, as well as hundreds and hundreds of militiamen who, over the last four months, have been committing very serious violations, who remain holed up in a number of different places throughout the city. So, we understand that there are efforts to disarm these individuals, get them to surrender, and then disarm them. But, you know, first and foremost, there are very pressing sort of security needs, to ensure that then the population, who, you know, has been largely holed up in their houses without access to water and food, can get out, and life can start to normalize.

AMY GOODMAN: What about reports of human rights abuses on both sides — on the Gbagbo side, on the Ouattara side?

CORINNE DUFKA: Well, absolutely. We and others have documented extremely serious abuses that have taken the lives of probably close to a thousand, if not more, committed by both sides. For the first four months, the vast majority of those were committed by forces loyal to Gbagbo, politically motivated violence in which they disappeared, killed, committed politically motivated rape against real and perceived supporters of Ouattara. As the Ouattara forces then launched a sweeping offensive that moved through the north and then central and east of the country, they also committed very serious war crimes, including killing, raping, burning villages and so on. So, it’s important — you know, President Ouattara is inheriting profound human rights problems, deep divisions along ethnic and political lines, and he must prioritize bringing individuals from both sides of the political-military divide to justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Elizabeth Dickinson is with us also. She’s projects editor at Foreign Policy, who just went to Liberia, where over 125,000 people from the Ivory Coast have fled. Talk about the situation there, and talk then about how Gbagbo remained in power and where his support came from.

ELIZABETH DICKINSON: Well, right from the beginning, it’s important to remember that Gbagbo had about 50 percent of the country’s support. This election was contested; it was very close. Even according to the official results that the U.N. certified, he won 46 percent of the vote. So we’re talking about a country that’s been polarized, not just for months during this crisis, but really for years. This political divide goes back much farther than just this current election.

Now, in the region, I think everyone was fearing that this crisis was going to do exactly what it did do, which is spill over the borders. I was in Liberia. I spoke with government officials there who were absolutely petrified that this was going to cross over the border and reignite a civil war that that country is just struggling to recover from there. As you mentioned, 125,000 refugees in the country now, putting extreme stress and strain on an area of the region — an area of the country that’s already very impoverished, very resource-strapped. And in addition, there were many reports throughout the crisis of armed combatants going over the border and crossing into the Liberian side from Ivory Coast, threatening to arm once again Liberians.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the divide between Muslims and Christians?

ELIZABETH DICKINSON: Absolutely. So, Ivory Coast is a country that’s approximately 50 percent Muslim, 50 percent Christian. It breaks down much closer on sort of ethnic and north-south lines. The north of the country has traditionally been controlled by people who have supported Alassane Ouattara. The south of the country is Gbagbo’s stronghold. And so, particularly in the capital of Abidjan, he had very, very strong support.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the role of the Christian right here in the United States in relation to Gbagbo?

ELIZABETH DICKINSON: Well, this is a very interesting story. Gbagbo is a very — is a very charismatic guy, and he’s made a lot of friends over the years here in the United States in the evangelical Christian community. One of his most prominent supporters was a senator, Senator Inhofe, who met him at the National Prayer Breakfast several years back and formed something of a relationship with him. Through that relationship, Gbagbo, throughout this electoral process, began to feed information to some of his supporters here in the U.S. that he claimed indicated that he had actually won the election.

Well, this took hold, and a number of supporters rallied their — rallied their sort of troops behind him here in the evangelical media, namely, through the Christian Broadcasting Network, a network that’s owned by Pat Robertson, who came out very vehemently in support of Gbagbo, and really, in a sort of tragic way, classifying the crisis on — in religious terms, something that really it hasn’t been broken down in on the ground. That is to say that Pat Robertson came out and explicitly said, "This is a country that’s governed now by a Christian, Mr. Gbagbo, and should Ouattara take power — he is a Muslim, and so we’ll see this country, this good Christian country, pass into the hands of Muslims." It was a statement that I think probably couldn’t have been helpful on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn right now to a quote of Pat Robertson.

PAT ROBERTSON: American press and the international press, I have found not one word spoken in favor of President Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast. And everybody says this man is an evil thug who needs to go. That’s not true. He’s a Christian. He’s a nice person. And he’s run a fairly clean operation in the Ivory Coast.

AMY GOODMAN: Elizabeth Dickinson?

ELIZABETH DICKINSON: Well, there is certainly something to be said for Laurent Gbagbo’s work to transition the country to democracy, up to a point. I think it’s clear, however, following these elections, that he’s no — that he’s certainly no — he’s certainly no supporter of democracy, given that he didn’t respect these elections.

AMY GOODMAN: And Gbagbo’s argument that neocolonial French forces are supporting Ouattara because he’s seen as conducive to business interests to coca?

ELIZABETH DICKINSON: Yeah, absolutely. You know, this is a perception that Ouattara has fought from the beginning. There is evidence that he is — has a good relationship with French President Sarkozy. But the French, from the beginning, have been very clear not to be seen as supporting either candidate, knowing that it would be a liability in a former French colony to come out as having one candidate be the sort of supposed French candidate or the other way around. Gbagbo, however, has really based a lot of his popularity on this very fiery anti-colonial rhetoric. And so, that was, in fact, one of my main concerns looking at the way that he was eventually removed from power: simply, with the assistance of French troops, this really plays into a divide that Gbagbo very skillfully cultivated during his time in office, wherein he’s maybe seen by some of his supporters as a martyr who left at the hands of the French.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Elizabeth Dickinson, I want to thank you very much for being with us, from Foreign Policy; also to Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch, the Africa Division.

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