When Ivory Coast sank into a violent political crisis in 2002, French and United Nations forces deemed it necessary to intervene, initially to deescalate the conflict. They were soon fighting alongside candidate Alassane Ouattara's forces during the ensuing post-electoral crisis of 2010-2011, opposite soldiers loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo. Laurent Gbagbo was arrested at his residence by French forces and handed over to Ouattara’s loyalists on April 11, 2011. Due to this involvement of the UN, French and ECOWAS forces in the crisis, and circumstances surrounding the arrest and subsequent transfer of Gbagbo to the International Criminal Court, the international community’s intervention in the Ivorian crisis continue to be the subject of intense criticism both political and legal.
Laurent Gbagbo acquitted: lessons to be learned.
Whenever a case collapses at the ICC, it damages the perception of the court as a credible tool of international justice. The appeals judges agreed that the evidence, in this case, was extremely weak, raising questions about how this trial went as far as it did. From Ocampo to Ben Souda, the prosecutor's case seemed marred in controversies to the point where witnesses looked bewildered on the stand, far removed from facts and signed statements they swore to corroborate,
It is not the first case that has collapsed at the ICC. The court's outgoing prosecutor Fatou Bensouda lost an appeal in 2018 against the acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also saw charges of crimes against humanity over post-election violence dropped by Ms Bensouda in 2014.
The prosecution accused the government of failing to hand over vital evidence and said efforts had also been hampered by an unprecedented effort to intimidate and interfere with witnesses.
Ms Bensouda said Wednesday's judgement would be analysed to "fully appreciate its rationale and import for our work", and added that the investigations into alleged war crimes in Ivory Coast would continue.
A TEST FOR THE CREDIBILITY OF THE ICC
Having someone from the Ouattara camp prosecuted in The Hague is certainly appealing to Gbagbo's loyalists. A domestic trial as it is currently the case with Amade Ouremi would be politically costly. And, given someone as popular and influential as Soro will likely be conducive to civil turmoil. At the same time, recourse to international justice is not fail-proof either. The gross mismanagement of the case brought against Gbagbo and Blé Goudé is still fresh in the memory of many Ivorians. It is serving to undermine the credibility of the Hague-based tribunal.
Ivorian former warlords offer an opportunity for improvement and redemption that the court cannot afford to pass. Apart from justice being done, bringing a case against them would also help address perceptions about the court’s impartiality – or lack thereof. It would be the first international prosecution targeting high-ranking members from the “winning” side of the civil war. On this point, it is worth recalling that scholars and observers of Ivorian politics have so far lamented the Prosecutor’s silence regarding alleged crimes committed by pro-Ouattara forces.
A DOUBLE WIN?
Let us not forget that the Ouattara government surrendered both Gbagbo and Blé Goudé to the international criminal, in 2011 and 2013 respectively. When it refused to surrender Gbagbo’s wife Simone, the Ivorian judiciary charged her with war crimes, thus halting the ICC’s complementarity jurisdiction.
Others from the opposite camp are or will be convicted for crimes that do not fall within the International Criminal Court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. There is nevertheless no worse country to be in than France for those who seek to escape international justice. For the past 25 years, French authorities have proactively investigated, arrested, and surrendered to international criminal tribunals suspects from numerous countries. These range from the Western Balkans to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Central African Republic, Libya and Syria. Lastly, an ICC prosecution has far-reaching political and personal consequences for defendants that may even outlast their acquittal. This was proven by the fact that Gbagbo and Blé Goudé have been unable to return home and resume their political careers pending an appeal court that finally ruled in their favour.
A case against any of Ouattara's allies, let alone Soro would be a win for both the Hague-based court, in dire need of a credibility boost, and the Ivorian administration, seeking to smoothly transfer powers to someone who will continue, rather than undo, Ouattara’s legacy. What remains to be seen is whether Soro will accept his grim situation or fight to fulfil his dream of ever capturing the presidency of Ivory Coast by any means necessary.
And so, Ivory Coast remains trapped in the absurdity of greedy politicians who would rather front their grief over the wellbeing of innocent women and men whose only hope lies in everlasting empty promises, and forever the collateral victims.