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'Humanitarian Tragedy' Unfolding in Ivory Coast

Mar 25, 2011 – 4:50 PM
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Betwa Sharma

Betwa Sharma Contributor

UNITED NATIONS -- Though the world's attention is fixed on Libya, the fighting in another hot spot -- Ivory Coast -- is escalating. The power struggle between the country's two leaders has claimed hundred of lives and displaced 1 million people.

On Friday, France and Nigeria circulated a draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council, imposing sanctions on Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president who has refused to step down, and his advisers. The resolution will also stop heavy weapons from entering the capital, Abidjan.

"The first consensus is that we are facing a humanitarian tragedy in Ivory Coast," Gerard Araud, France's ambassador to the U.N., told journalists after a meeting with other diplomats of the 15-member body. "We are very close to a civil war in Abidjan."

Gbagbo is locked in a battle with Alassane Ouattara, who won the presidential election in November, according to the U.N. and the country's election commission.

"The political reason for the crisis is very simple," Araud said. "Gbagbo doesn't want to leave."

Ouattara's camp has ruled out power-sharing, which the country's envoy to the U.N., Youssoufou Bamba, described as a "step back" because the election was the "best ever."

The resolution also calls for Gbagbo to go and for the International Criminal Court and U.N. human rights chief to report on alleged human rights violations inside the country.

Some nations had expressed reservations about the U.N. picking sides in the election. There were even suspicions that in backing Ouattara, the U.N. was acting under pressure from France and the United States. But the U.N. has strongly denied the accusations.

Atul Khare, a senior U.N. peacekeeping official, described several "egregious" episodes in which forces from both camps had killed innocent civilians, including women and children.

"The deteriorating security situation and the escalation in the use of heavy weapons has had a serious toll on the lives and well-being of the Ivorian people," he told the council today. "The human rights situation is very grave."

Since December, 462 people have been killed, there have been 520 arbitrary arrests and detentions -- some involving torture -- and 72 disappearances have been reported. Schools, banks and businesses are closing down, causing unemployment, the U.N. reports.

Khare warned that the "dire humanitarian situation" would destabilize the world's largest cocoa-producing nation, as well as its neighbor, Liberia, where more than 93,000 Ivorians have already fled.

The 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Ivory Coast have been given a robust mandate to engage forces attacking civilians, but they are still unable to cope with the situation. In the past few months, they have also been attacked.

Khare said that the U.N. is treating hundreds of wounded but needs a surgical team.

"I would stress that the emergency humanitarian flash appeal for Ivory Coast and Liberia remains seriously underfunded ... hampering the ability of the United Nations to provide much-needed services to those forced to flee their homes," he said.

The emergency flash appeal of $32 million was made in January and is about 45 percent funded. But since then, the amount has become outdated, according to the U.N., which will soon launch another appeal.

A second appeal for $55 million was made for the Ivorian refugees in Liberia and has been 32 percent funded.

The U.N. Refugee Agency says families are leaving Ivory Coast because they don't want to be killed by stray bullets. Others are fleeing because they can't cope financially, as costs of food have risen and there is little available in the market.

The U.N., which has been issuing statements on Ivory Coast since November, has been criticized for not taking strong action there, as it has in Libya.

"We don't want any differentiation in the treatment of the crises. ... It's the same civilians being killed," Bamba told journalists earlier this month, after seven women were killed by Gbagbo's forces at a peaceful protest.

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International nongovernmental organizations have also called on the council to act.

"The U.N. Security Council must immediately take appropriate measures to stop the war," Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group, wrote in an open letter. She also urged "swift action" to "prevent ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocity crimes."

In contrast to U.N. figures, Bamba today put the death toll at more than 850 and called on the council to take "rigorous" measures to remove Gbagbo, including "total diplomatic isolation," destruction of weapons and strengthening of an arms embargo.

"Everyday, Ivorians are dying," he said. "This situation will lead to an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe."
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