The responsibility to protect the people of Côte d’Ivoire

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect warns that “an escalation in the situation [in Côte d’Ivoire] could easily lead to the commission of mass atrocities….”[i] Protection is far from guaranteed, but the international  effort to date is serious.

All the ingredients for long-term strife punctuated by explosive violence are in abundant supply in the Ivory Coast: north-south regionalism that reflects an economic divide, ethnic conflict, a north-south Muslim/Christian divide, xenophobia borne out of a history of illegal immigration, and most recently of course a contested presidential election in which each of the final two contestants has access to partisan armed forces.

The current crisis, in which the descent into major fighting has thus far been avoided, has already imposed huge costs on the people of a country still trying to recover from the last civil war. The UN reports that violence has claimed the lives of nearly 200 people and investigators have found evidence of extrajudicial executions, torture and arrests.[ii]  A week ago NGOs working in northeastern Liberia estimated that some 30,000 refugees had arrived from Côte d’Ivoire, many of whom were “reporting widespread violence and intimidation from both Ivoirian government troops and soldiers from the former rebel Forces Nouvelles operating in the west.”[iii] In the midst of deeply entrenched poverty, the crisis is putting food prices on the rise – doubling in some cases.[iv] The public unrest and political chaos are currently blocking a nationwide vaccination drive against yellow fever.[v]

A National Post columnist, in another run at the failures of the UN, complained that “once again the UN finds itself with a problem that has no apparent solution”[vi] – but that is exactly where the most intractable problems are taken. The UN and the international community are indeed already deeply involved in the crisis: through the presence of UN peacekeeping forces, a succession of Security Council resolutions, the African Union,[vii] the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS),[viii] and most especially a declared commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, when their own governments fail to do so.

Protection from that list of crimes means preventing them, which is the point emphasized by Francis Deng and Edward Luck, special Advisers to the Secretary-General respectively on the prevention of genocide and the responsibility to protect. In a public statement on the crisis in Ivory Coast they said the protection responsibility “entails the prevention of those crimes, importantly including their incitement,” and they warned all the involved parties “that they are accountable for their actions under international law.”[ix]

The UN Security Council similarly reminded Ivorian leaders that they “bear primary responsibility for ensuring peace and protecting the civilian population” and called on the UN peacekeeping forces to assist local authorities in that mission and to “implement [their] protection of civilian mandate.”[x]

There is inevitably reluctance to formally invoke the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), not least because it is taken by some as code for military intervention. The UK Independent newspaper launched a pre-emptive headline against military action with the declaration that “the last thing Ivorians need is an invasion”[xi] – which is a sentiment that could be appropriately applied to all states virtually all the time, but which offers rather slight help in sorting out the means by which the international community might best act on its R2P obligations.

To date, it is worth noting, the international community has been pursuing its responsibility cautiously but seriously in the spirit of the R2P doctrine approved by the UN in 2005.

International intervention or assistance is already partly military, inasmuch as UN peacekeeping force of over 9,000 international military and police personnel are already deployed there through the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoir (UNOCI),[xii] including a few hundred seconded from UNMIL in Liberia. More may be added, but the primary focus is on the diplomacy envisioned under Chapter VI and non-military coercion under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

In Chapter VI diplomacy the international community has been united in calling for the election results to be respected, for President Laurent Gbagbo (a southerner) to step down, and for election winner Alassane Quattara (a northerner) to assume that role. Measures under Chapter VII include a military embargo, a ban on diamond exports, frozen bank accounts and other assets, and travel bans against key individuals.

Louise Arbour of the International Crisis Group reflects the general wariness of the international community when she says “a military solution to the crisis in Côte d”Ivoir is unlikely.”[xiii] ECOWAS and the AU have clearly put military intervention, beyond the UN forces already there, on the table, but neither is keen, or has the ready means, to go that route. So, for now, we are seeing R2P in a prevention mode in Ivory Coast, along the lines envisioned by the framers of the 2005 R2P commitment.

The outcome is far from certain, and it is an uncertainty that holds the well-being of millions of people in the balance.


[i] “Open Statement on the Situation in Côte d’Ivoire,” Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 17 December 2010.

 [ii] BBC News, 28 December 2010.

 [iii] “Back to square one?”, IRIN, 30 December 2010.

 [iv] “Political impasse sparks food price hikes,” IRIN, 28 December 2010.

 [v] “Chaos blocks yellow fever vaccination drive,” IRIN, 5 January 2011.

 [vi] Kelly McParland, “The UNs dilemma in Ivory Coast,” National Post, 2 January 2011.

 [vii] Communique, African Union, 9 December 2010.

 [viii] Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on Cote D’Ivoir, 24 December 2010.

 [ix] “UN Secretary-General’s Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect on the situation in Côte d’Ivoire,” United Nations press release, 29 December 2010.’%20Statement%20on%20Cote%20d’Ivoire,%2029%20.12.2010.pdf.

 [x] Resolution 1962, United Nations Security Council, 20 December 2010 [S/RES/1962 (2010)].

 [xi] Adrian Hamilton, “The last thing Ivorians need is an invasion,” The Independent, 30 December 2010.

 [xii] Annual Review of Global Peace Operations 2010, A Project of the Center on International Cooperation (Lynne Reinner Publishers, Boulder and London, 2010), pp. 89-94.

 [xiii]  Louise Arbour, “Open Letter to the United Nations Security Council on the Situation in Côte d’Ivoir. 20 December 2010.

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