ABIDJAN, 22 October 2010 (IRIN) – Residents of western Côte d’Ivoire are relentlessly subjected to brutal physical and sexual violence by armed groups as the region festers in a state of near lawlessness, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released today.
The report paints a bleak picture in which human rights are subjugated to rule of the gun as state authorities fail to react to the disturbing reality: “Criminal gangs, militiamen, police, gendarmes, and rebel forces subject locals to an unrelenting stream of abuses, including banditry, assault, extortion, and the rape of women, girls, and even babies…
“State institutions tasked with preventing and holding accountable those responsible for the violence have largely failed to act, allowing a dangerous culture of impunity to take hold,” the report added.
As the West African nation prepares once again for elections originally due five years ago, the failure to hold polls continues to devastate the lives of ordinary citizens in the western regions of Moyen Cavally and Dix-Huit Montagnes as government authority has not been restored.
“While politicians and foreign diplomats have wrangled over election preparations, residents in western Côte d’Ivoire are consumed by fear of violent robbery or of being pulled from a bus and raped,” Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher for HRW, said.
The two regions are among several that were left in the hands of rebel Forces Nouvelles following a 2002 army uprising. After the conflict, guns proliferated in the west along the Liberian border, falling into the hands of rebels, pro-government militias, irregular combatants and ordinary criminals.
Although state authorities have been deployed to these regions under a 2007 peace deal, in Dix-Huit Montagnes, the Forces Nouvelles continue to maintain effective control. Moyen Cavally is ruled by government security forces, but pro-government and independent militia continue to roam freely. All have turned their guns on ordinary citizens struggling to rebuild their lives.
Criminal gangs routinely attack citizens at home, in the fields or on the road, creating an existence marked by fear, the report said. Attacks increase on market days when women carry cash and goods, and men carry money to buy or sell cocoa.
Armed militia, criminals, soldiers and rebels set up road blocks to collect bribes – amounting to US$200-300 million annually, according to a 2008 World Bank study.
Checkpoints are also used to stop transport vehicles and assault passengers, HRW said: “Attackers work meticulously, often stripping their victims to find every last coin, inflict physical abuse and, at times, kill those who refuse to relinquish money or who try to identify the attackers.”
An incident in January 2010 in which 20 girls and women were raped spotlights how female passengers often bear the brunt: “The assailants routinely pull women and girls off of trucks, one by one, march them into the bush, and rape them while other bandits stand guard,” the report said.
Even in their own homes, females – ranging from those over 70 to babies – are vulnerable to such attacks, says HRW.
Impunity and failed judiciary
The situation is aggravated by authorities who make little or no effort to bring the perpetrators to justice: “Victims universally described being met with scant interest or dismissive responses and, in almost every case, the police or gendarmes refused to move from their checkpoints or to call or radio in for reinforcements,” the report said.
One case documents five women, who had fled their armed assailants, being refused help at a checkpoint. Gendarmerie dismissed their pleas, saying: “It’s not our job; our job is only to guard the checkpoint.”
Rare cases that are brought to the courts languish in a judiciary system disintegrating amid corruption and dysfunction, the report noted.
“Meanwhile, striking deficiencies in the prison system, including corruption and insufficient facilities and guards, have led to the premature or illegal release of alleged perpetrators who are on remand or even convicted criminals,” it said.
The study noted the European Union alone will pour some $350 million into rehabilitating the judiciary system in the west, but a lack of will has curbed progress on establishing a functional system.
With no witness protection programmes, criminals who are released can seek revenge on their victims. In Moyen Cavally, those arraigned are sent to Forces Nouvelles-controlled Dix-Huit Montagnes, where no functioning courts exist, or to the nearest court over 100km away in Daloa, residents said.
Police Captain Anet, who is responsible for security forces across the Moyen Cavally zone, said the report painted a false picture of reality.
“Maybe lawlessness is the case in Dix-Huit Montagnes. It used to be the case here two years ago, but no longer today. Cases of robbery, of rape – these are basically non-existent,” he told IRIN.
“As far as we’re concerned our proof is the number of cases brought against us. In all the six brigades, we have never had a complaint lodged against us,” he said.
A resident of Moyen Cavally, requesting anonymity, confirmed this: “It’s perfectly true – the security forces here are a complete illusion, so that’s why they don’t receive reports.”
“They themselves are in league with the criminals. Those who are sent to Daloa return back here in no time, and then what can you do? Often you’re forced to move elsewhere to escape them.”
In the town of Duékoué, in Dix-Huit Montagnes, a Forces Nouvelles spokesperson repeated the refrain: “No-one has lodged any complaints of rape or robbery here. The report you talk about – did it mention any names? Ask those people who are named.”
“If you want my opinion, the situation is fine here, but I suggest you come see for yourself,” he told IRIN.
Mixed brigades, telephone hotlines
HRW recommendations include significantly increased staffing and logistics of police, gendarmes, and mixed brigades; issuing clear directives to the authorities against corrupt practices; and establishing a focal point in police and gendarme stations, as well as setting up a telephone hotline for victims to file complaints about abusive practices by state security forces.
The HRW inquiry coincides with a report by the UN Security Council, which concluded: “The Security Council notes with concern that, despite the general improvement of human rights, in some regions of the country the violation of human rights continues on civilians, including cases of sexual violence.”
“The situation in Côte d’Ivoire continues to endanger the peace and security of the region,” the report said, urging the government to ensure human rights are respected.