Sunday, April 3, 2011

Do We Have a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Civilians in Côte d’Ivoire?

(WARNING: This blog post contains graphic images of war crimes. If you are upset by images of dead bodies then do not continue.)

A dictator stands in defiance of the will of his people. His security forces are shooting nonviolent demonstrators, and a full-fledged civil war has erupted between popular militias and regiments loyal to the incumbent regime. The civilian population is caught in the crosshairs, and the dictator’s paramilitary death squads and mercenaries have resorted to the indiscriminate slaughter of neighborhoods, cities and clans suspected of subversion. An entire nation sits precariously on the brink of genocide. Millions of civilian men, women and children have fled from the violence to become a long term caste of internally-displaced persons and war refugees, destabilizing every country in the region. The people can only pray for the international community to take a stand to protect them from annihilation.

I’m not talking about Libya, however, but another country whose fate might have even greater implications for the fate of African democracy: the Ivory Coast.


Any proponent of this democratic tide which has swept away dictatorships in North Africa should be equally if not more enthusiastic for the ouster of Laurent Gbagbo - the president/dictator of Côte d’Ivoire since 2000. When his term ended in 2005, Gbagbo simply declined to hold new elections and ensconced in the presidential palace for another five years as an unelected warlord. In Gbagbo we have not a long-standing monarch or military leader who is merely facing a sudden popular revolt, but a strongman who had stolen a position of authority by subverting his country’s inchoate democratic institutions.


Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo agreed to hold a presidential election in November 2010. According to all objective observers, former Prime Minister and IMF economist Alassane Ouattara won with an unambiguous plurality of 54 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the Gbagbo-appointed Constitutional Council declared “widespread fraud” in the pro-Ouattara northern provinces and rejected all of those districts’ ballots - disenfranchising enough voters to certify Gbagbo the winner with an alleged 51 percent of the vote. Gbagbo’s nullification of the Ivorian presidential election was the world’s greatest bastardization of the franchise in recent memory; fittingly, the incumbent nonsensically claiming victory in defiance of all objectively verifiable truth had campaigned on the slogan “We win or we win”.

Moreover, as President of Côte d’Ivoire Gbagbo provoked the Ivorian population into civil war, pitted his Christian-majority South against the Muslims of the North, incited xenophobic violence against French expatriates and immigrant workers from Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali. Since the November election, ex-president Gbagbo widened the category of enemies of his quasi spiritual-nationalist-chauvinist regime and effectively declared war on the Ivorian civilian population which rejected him at the polls - a clear majority of the electorate. Ivorian soldiers and pro-Gbagbo youth gangs have terrorized tribes, clans, villages and neighborhoods as collective punishment for marking their ballots for Ouattara.



The moral cravenness of the Gbagbo regime was best exhibited this past March when the market women of the Abobo neighborhood in Abidjan demonstrated for an end to the fighting, carrying tree branches and chanting "We want peace".


Gbagbo’s forces mowed them down with machine guns, killing eight.

Despite the fact that they have declared allegiance to the rightful President Ouattara, lovers of liberty should hold little sympathy for Les Forces Nouvelles who are swiftly descending from their northern territories to conquer Gbagbo’s strongholds in the South. Les Forces Nouvelles are for the most part jackbooted thugs who likewise govern their territory through extortion, intimidation and outright theft.


Credible reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented an FN modus operandi of arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence directed towards those tribes, clans and villages accused of loyalty towards the Gbagbo junta. Aid groups descending upon the western town of Duékué recently “liberated” by the FN have discovered mass graves and piles of bodies which may turn out to evince more than 1,000 individual war crimes.

The Ivorian civilian population needs protection from both factions in this gruesome war. The apathy of the international community in respect to the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire is disgraceful, especially considering the fact that the United Nations already has a peacekeeping force of 9,000 mostly French and Bangladeshi personnel in this country. UN peacekeepers have been stationed in Côte d’Ivoire since 2004, in fact. However, the UNOCI peacekeeping forces effectively only serve to stabilize the expatriate neighborhoods of Abidjan and the environs immediately surrounding Le Golf Hôtel where Ouattara’s government-in-internal-exile has stood under siege since November. Like the UN peacekeeping forces which could only stand their ground and watch as genocide unfolded in Rwanda and Sudan, the powers that be have apparently destined UNOCI to serve as a mere witness to the human slaughter in Côte d’Ivoire.

The United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) is authorized by Resolution 1528, which was passed unanimously in the Security Council back in 2004 and reauthorized and augmented in a series of subsequent resolutions. UNSCR 1528 which begat UNOCI is actually remarkably similar to UNSCR 1973 which brought us the present Operation Odyssey Dawn; each was ostensibly crafted on the liberal humanitarian and politically neutral rationale of maintaining a cease-fire and protecting civilians.

One major difference is that UNSCR 1973 authorized member states to enforce a no-fly zone to protect the Libyan rebels and civilians from assault by the Libyan Air Force; though the Gbagbo has used the Ivorian Air Force to pummel FN positions and civilian targets, and in 2004 even attacked the French air base in Bouaké (killing nine French soldiers and an American aid worker), the mandate for UNOCI has never included the enforcement a no-fly zone. Understandably so; most of the war crimes conducted by both sides in the Ivorian Civil War have been implemented by foot soldiers.

Another major difference – arguably more subtle but a more consequential difference nonetheless – is that UNSCR 1973 authorized member states to enforce the transport of arms in and out of Libya, and a significant portion of participants in Operation Odyssey Dawn have actively deployed their respective navies to hold up the blockade and starve Qaddafi of arms. UNSCR 1528 and its follow-up resolutions similarly exhorted member states to enforce an arms embargo on Côte d’Ivoire as well, but no one has seemed to notice. Even since the post-electoral revival of hostilities, UN investigators have been pursuing reports that guns, ammunition, perhaps even attack helicopters and aircraft may have been imported from Zimbabwe, Angola, even landlocked Belarus. Though some of the individual accusations may turn out to have be groundless – apparently the Belarussian helicopter sale had indeed been planned but never actually executed – the fact that Ivorian seaports and airports have been open to commercial traffic at all is testament to the fact that no relevant powers of the international community are earnestly committed to enforcing the arms embargo which is crucial to minimizing the extent of the Ivorian bloodbath.

Conversely, the UN-authorized operations in Libya are extremely dissimilar from UNOCI in that whereas Obama, Sarkozy, Cameron and every other power player has repeatedly insisted that Odyssey Dawn will not entail the deployment of ground troops, the multilateral campaign is being conducted exclusively by air and sea, the peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire consists almost exclusively of ground troops. UNOCI now consists of 9,024 uniformed personnel on the ground, including 7,578 troops, 176 military observers and 1,270 police – disproportionately Bangladeshi infantry and French gendarmes. Boots on the ground do not necessarily make the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire any more effective; they have been by and large limited in their conduct to securing President Ouattara and his coterie at Le Golf Hôtel and only the most modest of civilian protection operations in Abidjan.

The crippling reserve exercised by UNOCI is likewise based on the exponentially greater risk of protecting civilians via ground troops; to date, 54 UN personnel have been killed in the line of duty in Côte d’Ivoire – more than the total death toll of US personnel in Bosnia, Kosovo, Colombia and Haiti combined. As the Obama administration is preoccupied with extricating our land forces from the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are reasonably squeamish about committing to any sort of civilian protection operations that cannot be executed by B-2 stealth bombers or guided-missile destroyers.

It seems that the logistics of peacekeeping in Côte d’Ivoire might be daunting, even more so than our “kinetic military action” in Libya. Yet it seems that the moral logic of intervention is in both countries is indistinguishable. President Obama intones that action was necessitated by the specter of full-out massacre in Benghazi – an action which “would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world”. Indeed it would have. But are our consciences not stained by the massacres in Abobo and Duékué?

Obama argues that the United States has a strategic interest in preventing a massacre which “would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous trains on the peaceful – yet fragile – transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.” At last count, the UN High Commissioner of Refugees stated that at least 116,000 Ivorian refugees had already fled to neighboring Liberia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea – with more than 100,000 in Liberia alone. All of these countries are already suffering from some degree of political instability, anemic economies and intolerably high levels of unemployment; hence the situation we have now with multiple millions of internally displaced Ivorians who might very well pour over the borders bodes terribly ill for West Africa’s fragile democracies.

Obama contends that if the U.S. did not intervene in Libya, “The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.” Though as Laurent Gbagbo defied the will of his people and nullified the election in which he lost, we demonstrated to the young democracies of Africa that we would respond to their power grabs with sharply-worded proclamations and economic sanctions that we would not bother to enforce. This year alone presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and seven other countries on the continent; is the lesson of Ggbagbo to be learned by African incumbents that they should do well to stay in power by not holding elections at all?

Moreover, Obama maintained that intervention in Libya was necessary to uphold the credibility of the UN itself, that had we not acted “The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security.” How does United Nations make itself credible when the Security Council calls for a cease-fire and does not enforce it? Or when the Security Council enacts an arms embargo on a war criminal regime – but not a single member state is willing to interdict cargo ships and planes bound for it? How can any institution be trusted to keep the peace in the African heartland when its peacekeeping mission cowers on the beaches of Abidjan?

In all fairness, the newly-christened Obama Doctrine is more nuanced than a mere postulate of normative ethics; the rubric for intervention laid out in the President’s “Responsibility to Act” speech is a complex calculus of moral imperatives and cold cost-benefit analysis. And he did state quite clearly: “It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs”; i.e. sometimes despots will crush their people and the United States will do nothing because – however righteous intervention might be – we cannot afford to intervene, or we can but the fate of the country in question is not in our core national interests.

And likewise, it looks quite manifest that the international community is not going to take any substantive action to protect the Ivorian civilian population, that this civil war is probably going to end within a matter of hours as the Les Forces Nouvelles seize hold of the last military bases and police stations in Abidjan, the television station and the presidential palace, the last Gbagbo loyalists either defect, surrender or are summarily executed by the victors. Laurent Gbagbo himself will most likely come to an end with a bullet to the temple. And one can only imagine what sort of “revolutionary justice” the FN Jacobins might mete out to the neighborhoods, villages, and clans which voted for Gbagbo. This sort of African solution to an African problem will not put the lives of any U.S. troops on the line and it won’t cost taxpayers a dime; from our narrow self-interest, it might even be an efficient policy of isolationism. Though for the Ivorian people, on the other hand, it might mean tens of thousands of civilian deaths which could have been completely prevented had the international community made a serious stab at intervention.

As we bask in the self-righteousness of pre-empting humanitarian calamity in Libya, how do we sit content with the knowledge that civilians are being massacred at this very moment, that the United States could very well lead a multilateral coalition to protect the Ivorian civilian population – but we politely declined? How might our academies’ mightiest metaphysicists and international human rights lawyers conclude a moral “responsibility to protect” civilians in Libya – but not civilians in Côte d’Ivoire? What makes a real, actual massacre in Duékué any less atrocious than a hypothetical massacre in Benghazi? Is it the fact that Libyans are Caucasoid enough that they almost resemble Europeans – but Ivorians are much darker-skinned Others? Or is it that the Western economies cannot handle even a mild oil shortage – but we can cope with civil war in countries whose greatest export is the cocoa bean?

This author for one sympathizes greatly with the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” which is evolving out of the legal framework of Odyssey Dawn, but a legal doctrine which aims to uphold the values of universal human rights either necessitates intervention to protect both peoples or neither. If the power elite espouse a “responsibility to protect” the people of Libya, but find no such obligation to intervene on behalf of the Ivorians, their reasoning must be predicated on some combination of apathy, hypocrisy, or the kind of cold-blooded economics in which human costs merit no consideration.

6 comments:

Nathan said...

Well, Zac, I would venture to say that the discrepancies you note are mere extensions of decades (centuries?) old patterns of US diplomacy. In that sense, perhaps we can celebrate that this is not neglect due to (overt) racism; the US has long leveraged military force in a disparate and incoherent fashion. Disparate except if you consider political and economic interests that is.

I greatly appreciate your poignant description of the recent history leading up to these events. But I think that I would focus a bit less on the propaganda machinery of the Obama administration. He may have tweaked the language a bit, and spoken in a manner unusually articulate and nuanced for a general audience, but these are just words. It is the actions that matter.

As for the actual moral arguments for a 'Responsibility to Protect', I think you well point out the biggest failures. That this was a civil war brewing for more than a decade and the 'Western' world did little during that time. Regardless of intervention at this point, our collective 'conscience' is already 'stained'. The grossest acts of immorality are happening on a daily basis, whether it is coercive trade policies or manipulative 'development' investments. Gbagbo is indeed a real shit bag, but I hate to distract by demonizing the individual when it is the overarching financial/political/legal system that creates these characters time after time. Gbagbo is not an accident. Neither were Mabutu, Gaddafi, Suharto, Pinochet…

A humanitarian crisis such as this should necessarily galvanize international interest in support of civilian safety. But the trouble is, when you wait for these sorts of flash points, all of the available solutions are just plain unpalatable. Military occupation, ineffective embargoes, 'enlightened' indifference. All of these options result in a mess, though in this particular scenario I am inclined to agree with your own bent for some more substantive intervention.

So let's focus on the moral issues of violence in Côte d'Ivoire now. But also keep in perspective the (perhaps greater) need to work tirelessly, endlessly to prevent these 'massacres' from taking shape every day.

pH said...
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pH said...

It seems to me that you argue on the one hand that the intervention in Cote d'Ivoire has been insufficient because it does not go to the same extent as the intervention in Libya; and on the other hand, you imply that the intervention in Libya goes too far. What, then is the difference between the two situations that one demands interventions ? All I see in your argument is that 1) one involves black Africans (the supreme fetish of liberal interventionism) and one involves Arabs (which reminds us all too much of George W Bush); an 2) one involves people who voted and the other doesn't. At least in Libya, the UN/West have the decency to openly pick a side, despite the talk of protecting only civilians. (To this end I am heartened by the recent bombings by the French and UN of Gbagbo's forces.) But what kind of intervention are you arguing for? For the UN to police a civil war to ensure the compliance of both parties with the Geneva Convention? What could possibly accomplish this--prevent all retaliatory massacres, etc.--but full out occupation? Not that I oppose that--the UN does have a decent track record of stabilizing countries in civil war. But we should be clear on what it entails. We're not so far apart in terms of what we'd like to see happen, but I feel like we couldn't be farther apart in terms of how we justify it. Your drawing of an equivalence between the NF, tainted though it is with atrocity, and Gbabo, your shrill invocation of Jacobins and jackboots, seems irresponsible and naive. There is no moral war, there is only political war. No ethics, but only good politics and bad politics. That goes for interventions as much as for the parties of a civil war.

Zachary Asher Mason! said...
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Zachary Asher Mason! said...

With every passing hour it seems that the UN i.e. French humanitarian intervention is a noble effort, incontrovertibly noble indeed, but it is so ludicrously late in the game. The massacres of Abobo and Duékué have already happened. The FN is presently advancing floor by floor in the residence where Gbagbo is reportedly cowering in the basement. Pardon me if I'm not impressed by the fact that just now France seized the airport in Abidjan so she could evacuate her nationals, and that she blew up an arms depot at the 11th hour.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12985638

As to Côte d’Ivoire : Libya, I must admit that though I was a skeptic at first I’ve warmed to Odyssey Dawn more and more. Call me a flip-flopper, call me a scurrilous scalawag, so be it. I do think, however, that it is a healthy thing for one to be reflexively isolationist and pacifist, and that the embrace of arms should only be out of reluctant necessity. I must admit that I am duly impressed by the Obama administration’s restraint and modesty in this whole affair; perhaps I should have realized that a constitutional law professor is going to prosecute war with painstaking attention to legal necessity?

Nevertheless, either way you look at it, the international community’s failure in Côte d’Ivoire easily surpasses any critique one might make about the legalisms of intervention in Libya. Obama, Sarkozy, Cameron et al. seem to have successfully averted a massacre in Benghazi. In Côte d’Ivoire, the French just covered their asses. We the United States have done nothing. In fact, the House of Representatives even cut our membership dues for the United Nations.

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