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"We Need to Know the Truth, Even if it’s not Pretty"

Ivory Coast announces a Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission, but details are lacking.
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Trouble flares after Alassane Ouattara's election win in Ivory Coast.

The Ivory Coast has sworn in its new Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission in an effort to expose human rights violations and forge unity after post-election violence. After elections last November, then incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to admit defeat and hand over power to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner of the poll. The subsequent violence exposed the fractured nature of Ivorian society, and resulted in an estimated 3,000 killed and 500,000 displaced. Conflict came to an end shortly after Gbagbo was captured - looking humiliated and rather helpless in a hotel room – by pro-Ouattara forces.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission modelled on the body used in post-apartheid South Africa has been expected since April, when Ouattara says he contacted South African President Zuma for South Africa’s experience and support. The Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission will work alongside the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is examining some cases of the worst alleged perpetrators of human rights violations in an effort to end impunity.

The Commission has a two-year mandate and aims to “bring the country as quickly as possible to normality” and to “rebuild the social fabric” of the country, according to the government. The Commission is headed by former prime minister Charles Konan Banny, and includes 11 members of religious bodies and regional representatives – and Chelsea footballer Didier Drogba, a national hero who called for calm during the violence. Details are otherwise vague: it is unclear what judicial power the commission will have, how far back into the country’s past it will look, whether it will issue amnesties and pardons, and – most worryingly – how far it may represent victors’ justice.

A complex background

In many ways, the swearing-in of the Commission has generated more questions than it has answered. Dynamics behind the post-election violence were oversimplified by many news narratives; reduced to a battle of democracy against dictatorship, political and social grievances have often been overlooked.

The Ivory Coast has struggled with multiple political crises since the death of the country’s first president - Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in 1993 - after almost four decades in power. Questions of citizenship and xenophobia – of “Ivorité” - have dominated post-independence Ivory Coast. A civil war in 2002 partly rooted in these questions of citizenship and discrimination split the country between rebel-held north and government-controlled south; the 2010 poll was supposed to mark an end to the civil-war era, but reopened and exposed divisions within Ivorian society.

The involvement of France in Ivorian politics has also been highly contentious. It is unclear how many of these issues the Commission will address, but in order for the Commission to succeed in it aims, long-standing issues and grievances need to be thoroughly explored.

Both sides are accused of having committed human rights violations during the civil war and post-election violence. Gbagbo and some of his allies are accused of war crimes; dozens of his supporters have already been charged. Meanwhile, though human rights organisations have accused some of Ouattara’s supporters – including the rebel fighters who helped bring him to power – of massacring hundreds of civilians in pro-Gbagbo areas, not a single one has been arrested so far.

For the Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission to achieve its goals, it is vital that human rights violations of all sides are considered. A victors’ justice, punishing Gbagbo’s allies at the expense of Ouattara’s, will merely extend the political crisis of the Ivory Coast. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who headed his own country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission - publicly warned against this, arguing that it would undermine the reconciliation process. As the president of the Commission, former prime minister Charles Konan Banny said: "We need to know the truth, even if it is not pretty." This cannot be merely aspects of the truth which support the government’s position, but a complete understanding of all human rights violations which occurred during the violence.

A difficult position for Ouattara

President Ouattara is in a difficult position, and hearing testimony about some of his key supporters will undoubtedly be highly political sensitive. However, to ignore the human rights violations committed by his own allies will ultimately undermine his efforts to restore unity as well as harming his international reputation as a democrat rallying against a dictatorship.

With the details of the Commission’s scope and functions still vague, it is unclear that it will give equal weight to the human rights of all affected by the political crisis of the Ivory Coast. The processes and procedures of the Commission need to be clear and transparent in order to foster reconciliation in the country. Uncertainty over how it will function must not be used to exploit the work of Commission to the government’s ends. Ouattara has promised that the Commission "will be independent and will hear everyone." The proof may be in the details.

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