What is the ideal transitional justice scenario in Ivory Coast? the Belgian newspaper De Morgen asked me this week in an interview published on Thursday. It is always impossible to predict these types of questions, but there are some trends we can see from other places, which might help the Ivoriens build peace – in the aftermath of so much violence.
Attention at the moment is focussed on prosecuting former President Laurent Gbabgo, his wife and senior aides. Ideally these trials should take place in Ivory Coast, but in many post-conflict situations, the justice system is unable to guarantee fair trials. If this is the case, the International Criminal Court could step in. But the ICC is a court of last resort – and there are disadvantages to pursuing alleged human rights violators through it. In DR Congo, for example, the Court is often portrayed as ‘foreign justice’. And when trials take place in The Hague, so far from where the violations have occurred it is difficult for the victims and affected communities to access proceedings.
Between national trials and the ICC, there are other options. In the past, the UN has set up ‘hybrid’ courts, like the Special Court for Sierra Leone and ad hoc tribunals, like the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) and for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). But although these courts have made invaluable contributions to combatting impunity for the worst crimes, they are expensive, and slow. There is little appetite amongst the donors for funding more such courts in the future. But there are alternatives, such as providing international support for trials within national systems – as in Bosnia. A ‘mixed’ court along these lines is currently in development in DR Congo.
For justice to prevail, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The President of the UN Human Rights Council has appointed an International Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights violations committed in Ivory Coast, identify those responsible, and bring them to justice. If the Commission identifies perpetrators who have been loyal to President Ouattara, they must also be prosecuted. The International Community should support the Commission in its work, ensure it has the access it needs in Ivory Coast to conduct a thorough investigation, and follow up on its recommendations.
And justice is not limited to prosecutions. There have been President Outtara has promised to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ivory Coast, which could be a useful complement to (but not a replacement for ) criminal prosecutions. Where truth commissions have been most successful, there have been widespread popular consultations to determine their purpose, mandate and composition. At best, truth commissions can contribute to building a peaceful society; at worst they can be a whitewash and leave the roots of the conflict unaddressed.
Finally, a lesson we can learn from countries like Afghanistan and DRC is that failing to reform public institutions – and particularly the armed forces, police and judiciary – and remove those responsible for human rights violations from public service stores up more problems for later. Fair vetting processes, which remove human rights abusers, install discipline and civilian oversight can make a vital contribution to democracy-building.
Prosecutions alone can’t deliver justice; but combined with truth-seeking , vetting and reform of the public institutions and reparations for victims, they may be able to help address the root causes of the conflict and prevent its recurrence. The Commission of Inquiry is potentially a good start in this direction; engaging the Ivoriens, especially the marginalised, will be crucial in making any of these processes succeed.