(Nairobi) – The Ivorian government should urgently address the rising violent crime in and around the central town of Bouaké, the country’s second largest city, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should take urgent steps to disarm the former combatants widely believed to be implicated in the attacks and adequately equip the police and gendarmes to protect the population and investigate violent crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
Since early December 2011, at least 22 people have been murdered in central Côte d’Ivoire during attacks on passengers travelling on motorbikes or in commercial vehicles. Victims and witnesses from Bouaké interviewed by Human Rights Watch described 15 such attacks during which at least 13 men were shot and killed and five women raped. Bouaké residents said the road banditry occurs daily and is part of a striking rise in violent crime that has crippled daily life. Residents said police and gendarmes have neither protected them from,nor properly investigated,the violent attacks.
“The Ivorian people have suffered countless horrors,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to show it intends to end this violence by disarming former combatants and ensuring that police and gendarmes are equipped to protectIvorians and stem the rampant criminality around Bouaké.”
Victims said that attackers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles work in groups of two to eight, blocking roads with wood or cars, and then systematically robbing people in passing vehicles. Witnesses said that passengers who glanced at the attackers’ faces, tried to flee, or failed to give them money had been killed. Several women interviewed by Human Rights Watch described being stripped as the bandits looked for cash, then raped. One woman was raped in front of other passengers after her father was gunned down in front of her, while another woman described being forced into the surrounding vegetation and raped by two men.
The victims who spoke to Human Rights Watch, all of whom had lived in Bouaké for years, universally believed the attackers were associated with the Republican Forces. The term “Republican Forces” now signifies the official Ivorian military, but is also commonly used to describe tens of thousands more youth who took up arms in 2011 to remove former President Laurent Gbagbo from power after he refused to recognize President Alassane Ouattara’s electoral victory and unleashed a torrent of abuse against Ouattara supporters.
Bouaké is the former capital of the Forces Nouvelles (New Forces) armed group that effectively controlled the northern half of the country beginning in September 2002 and constituted the bulk of the Republican Forces during the post-election period.
In linking the attackers to the Republican Forces, victims cited the type of weapons the attackers used, the fact that some wore military pants or boots, and the quasi-military nature of the attacks. The victims also referred to the ubiquity of the Republican Forces and former New Forces combatants in Bouaké, and the attackers’ apparent lack of fear that the Republican Forces troops who exert effective control within Bouaké would stop them.
The Ivorian government has commendably acknowledged the problem of road banditry and violent crime, and publicly made a commitment to address the issue, Human Rights Watch said. Representatives from Ivorian civil society and the United Nations Operations in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) likewise told Human Rights Watch that since the December 2011 killing of five people by Republican Forces soldiers in the town of Vavoua, the government has taken a few meaningful steps to address problems of indiscipline within the Republican Forces. These include creating a military police unit, which has arrested some soldiers engaged in crime, and improvements in unifying the formerly belligerent armed forces into a military with some chain of command.
People in Bouaké made clear, however, that their security situation has progressively worsened. One Bouaké resident told Human Rights Watch on February 23, 2012, that the previous two weeks had been the worst so far, with violent robberies every day throughout the town. She said that at least five people had been killed during that period and that attacks had occurred on Western Union and key businesses, prompting a strike by traders and storekeepers.The right to security is protected under article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both ratified by Côte d’Ivoire. These provisions require authorities to take reasonable steps to protect everyone in Côte d’Ivoire from violence by anyone else, when the authorities are aware that certain individuals or groups are at specific risk.
Victims told Human Rights Watch that when they reported to the police or gendarmerie incidents of road banditry, often including murder or rape, the authorities responded that they are unarmed and ill-equipped to tackle the problem, and they failed to investigate the reports. Several people involved in inter-city transport in Bouaké said that the security vacuum is being filled in part by members of the regular Republican Forces, whom they now pay for protection.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to quickly provide sufficient material support for the police and gendarmes to undertake basic security functions. The government should also ensure that the military defers to and respects the primacy of the police and gendarmes who are responsible for protecting the population and bringing those responsible to book, Human Rights Watch said.
In addition to empowering the security forces, a successful disarmament, demobilization, and reinsertion program (known as DDR) for the tens of thousands of men who took up arms during the post-election crisis is essential to tackle the worrying rise in violent criminality, Human Rights Watch said. Some important progress has been made in disarming men who took up arms during the post-election crisis, Human Rights Watch said. And UN officials said that the Ouattara government’s current efforts were a significant improvement from three failed disarmament programs during Gbagbo’s presidency. The disarmament of certain high-risk armed groups in Abidjan and the western part of the country – the majority formerly associated with Gbagbo’s side – has indeed begun, with close involvement from the UN.
However, several UN officials said that certain influential members of the government with close ties to the Republican Forces appeared to be “stalling,” or “slow-moving,” in disarming the forces that swept it to power. An estimated 40,000 “volunteers,” according to media reports citing diplomats, fought with the Republican Forces.
UN officials told Human Rights Watch that UN-monitored disarmament of these former combatants has yet to start, as the government says it is yet to arrive at decisions regarding military reform and has not finished registering and profiling all of these former combatants. As one UN official said, the UN could not assist disarmament of the Republican Forces “until the government tells us who to disarm.”
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