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UN mission under pressure to contain Ivorian crisis

Caught up in a power struggle between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, the UN mission in Ivory Coast has been tasked with protecting civilians. As the violence intensifies, the UN is facing calls to toughen its mandate.


The United Nations Operation in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) has been a frequent target of criticism by those loyal to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo since the UN certified rival candidate Alassane Ouattara as the winner of a Nov. 28 presidential run-off.

Now the peacekeeping mission is facing fire from Ouattara’s side, as well.

With the international coalition’s military intervention in Libya underway, Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of the presidential vote, has explicitly asked the UN mission in Ivory Coast to “proceed to action” and to “use legitimate force” to protect civilians endangered by post-election violence in his country. “Considering the gravity and urgency of the situation … the government is asking the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution authorising immediate use of legitimate force,” read his statement, which was drafted from the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has been living since the independent electoral commission declared him the winner.

“To put it plainly, we are asking the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire to do what it is meant to do,” Ouattara spokesman Affoussy Bamba told FRANCE 24. “Its mission is very clear: to bring help and assistance to civilians who are assaulted on a daily basis by the defence and security forces of Laurent Gbagbo, whose departure will only be obtained by use of force.”

After a two-day summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja, leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc on Thursday echoed that position. “[ECOWAS] leaders have agreed they will apply to the UN for a mandate for military intervention as a last resort,” ECOWAS head James Victor Gbeho of Ghana declared following the meeting. It remains to be seen whether this mandate would include a possible intervention by ECOWAS or whether it would be carried out by the approximately 10,000 UN troops already present in Ivory Coast.

UNOCI’s sacred impartiality

It is nevertheless difficult to imagine UN peacekeepers trying to drag Gbagbo by force from his presidential palace in the economic capital, Abidjan. “It is important to distinguish between maintaining peace and imposing peace,” UNOCI spokesman Hamadoun Touré told AFP on Tuesday.

Philippe Hugon, a professor at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, thinks it unlikely that the Libyan scenario – in which the UN Security Council backed an international intervention – could be repeated in Ivory Coast. “One mustn’t forget that UNOCI is an intermediary force that cannot support one camp or the other,” Hugon said. “Moreover, it is likely that Brazil, Russia, India and China, all of whom abstained from voting on the Libya resolution, would use their veto this time.”

Short of a full intervention, however, the UN can make things easier for the peacekeepers on the ground. “The Security Council can give UNOCI a clearer road map, which would give it more authority and allow it to engage more vigorously on the ground,” said Florent Geel, of the African branch of the International Federation for Human Rights, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “The UN force needs to have enough people to protect the population.”

With only 10,000 soldiers deployed in the country, the UN peacekeeping mission has struggled to gain credibility. Fearful of seeing Ivory Coast sink into civil war, the UN voted on Jan. 18 to send 2,000 extra troops to the country. Still, many observers consider the reinforcement insufficient. “If the conflict becomes a war, UN forces would not be in a position to handle the humanitarian catastrophe that would result,” said Hugon.

David Zounmenoun, an Ivory Coast specialist from the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, agrees with that assessment. “They need to figure out how to consolidate their presence,” he told AFP. “Otherwise, we’ll be in the same situation as we were in Rwanda in 1994.”

‘The war has already begun’

Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organisations are urging immediate action. On Tuesday, the International Crisis Group asked ECOWAS leaders to put in place a “military mission” to protect the civilian population. “Attacks against civilians are perpetrated every day, there are kidnappings and cases of rape and torture being reported, and the human toll is far higher than the one confirmed by the UN,” the NGO said in an open letter on Tuesday addressed to ECOWAS leaders and African heads of state. “Ivory Coast is no longer on the verge of war; the war has already begun.”

Clashes between pro-Ouattara militants and forces loyal to Gbagbo have already resulted in 462 deaths since the end of 2010, according to the most recent UN figures. Meanwhile, nearly 500,000 people are estimated to have fled from the violence in Abidjan and western Ivory Coast, where the former rebel group New Forces – which was formed in 2002 following the first peace accords of the Ivorian civil war and is aligned with Ouattara – has seized several towns.

“The humanitarian situation is more dire than in Libya,” Hugon affirmed. “But over there, there’s more oil.” Indeed, the Ivory Coast's cocoa beans, of which it is the biggest exporter in the world, do not have quite the same value as black gold.


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