The African Union is still considering a mass withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would be disastrous for human rights. The ICC can prosecute individuals for international crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly in circumstances in which the country of the crime is unable or unwilling to do so.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on testimony against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo at the ICC in the Hague, Netherlands. He is the Congolese former Vice President and ALC leader who ordered mass rapes and killings in the Central African Republic from 2002-2003. His trial was historic because it was the first time that an individual was charged with sexual violence as a stand alone crime. Previously, charges of mass rape have been embedded under the umbrella of other wartime violence in general. It was an important step forward for women’s rights.
This sort of progress would not have occurred outside the framework of the ICC. The AU currently demands that sitting heads of state be immune from ICC charges, but such actors are exactly those who are least likely to face justice in their home countries. The ICC is most relevant precisely for them. Are such leaders making a bid to withdraw simply in anticipation of their own potential bad behavior in the future?
As mentioned in my previous two posts, last week’s start of the International Criminal Court‘s case against the former President of Cote d’Ivoire was historic. He is the most high-profile defendant to date, and the first head of state to face charges. Many Ivorians and members of the Ivorian diaspora are following the case closely, and emotionally. According to those I spoke with on Tuesday, so many people hoped to attend Gbagbo’s pre-trial that there was a sign-up list online in order to fill the 75 seats in the public viewing gallery fairly. In the 30 minutes before the start of proceedings, police escorted in groups of half a dozen people or so, and many hopeful attendees began to complain that police were using a different list than that online. The ICC’s front desk employees had told me earlier that morning that it was first come first serve, and that whoever lined up soonest would enter.
However, there was no semblance of any orderly line, and people began to argue with others waiting to enter, and then some hostility began to be directed at the police. One tearful woman approached an escorted group as they passed through the ICC’s street entrances, yelling at them that they were criminals and murders. Others began pushing their way to the front of the line, claiming a friend was saving them a place. As police tried to gently usher people away from the buildings entrance, demonstrators who had been at the pro-Gbagbo rally across the street became agitated and screamed at the police officers.
Across the street from the Court, near the rally, perhaps a hundred riot police emerged from armored vehicles, although no riot ended up taking place. From my vantage point, the Dutch police were impressive in their professionalism. They remained exceedingly calm and respectful, even when Gbagbo supporters were not. I did not observe any excessive violence on the part of the police, and comparably speaking, I can’t imagine police in any other country showing such restraint. I noted that perhaps 1/3 of the riot officers were female, a much higher percentage than I think would be present in the U.S. in such a situation.
Right around the time when Gbagbo’s hearing was supposed to start, I looked across the street to see a young Ivorian man getting physical with another man, and then saw him take a full swing at a police officer when the officer tried to break up the fight. As soon as he tried to punch that officer, any hope of getting in to the hearing was over for all of us. The doors to the Court were immediately locked, police brought out German Shepherds, and then they began to close off the sidewalk.
Here are two clips I took of the “line” to enter the Court. The first shows the arrest of the man with the yellow bag above, and the second clip is of Gbagbo supporters getting frustrated when they were not permitted entrance. See:
- Laurent Gbagbo fit to stand trial (bbc.co.uk)
- Former Ivorian leader Gbagbo fights ICC for freedom (vanguardngr.com)
Last week was historic for the International Criminal Court. It marked the pre-trial of the case against Laurent Gbagbo, the first former head of state to ever face charges in the ICC. I arrived on Tuesday simply hoping to see the inside of the building, but instead spent the afternoon watching demonstrators clash with Dutch police, and each other.
I was familiar with the Gbagbo case before I arrived and it was a simply a coincidence that my visit coincided with the first day of his pre-trial, which he did not attend. I knew that Gbagbo was installed as President of Cote d’Ivoire in 2000 and was in power during the 2002 civil war that split the country into politically contentious north and south regions. He served for a decade, based mostly on his continual stalling of his second election, and when Alassane Outtara was declared the winner of the 2010 elections Gbagbo refused to step down. He and his supporters argued that Outtara rigged the election (which is really hard to do unless the candidate is the incumbent) and Gbagbo swore himself into office again, despite that international observers called the voting more-or-less fair and that Gbagbo had already serve the equivalent of the constitutional limit of two five-year terms. Cote d’Ivoire became an even more volatile place in November 2010 when both Gbagbo and Outtara began to use violence to ensure their respective presidencies. The post-election conflict received the most media attention when a mass grave was discovered containing the bodies of known Outtara supporters.
According to the Case Information Sheet on “Situation in the Cote d’Ivoire: The Prosecutor v. Laurent Gbagbo” provided to me at the ICC’s front desk, pro-Gbagbo forces purportedly used widespread and systematic attacks against specific ethnic or religious communities that were supporting Outtara. The ICC is alleging that murder, rape and other sexual violence, persecution, and other inhuman acts were committed over an extended time period and over large geographic areas (I’m using the ICC’s wording). Gbagbo is being called an indirect co-perpetrator for four counts of crimes against humanity. Although Cote d’Ivoire is not party to the Rome State that founded the ICC, it accepted its jurisdiction in April 2003, which was ironically under Gbagbo’s regime. Outtara reconfirmed the country’s acceptance of this jurisdiction and at the end of last year the former President was arrested in the capital of Abidjan and transferred to The Hague. He has been fit to stand trial, and after being found indigent, the Court has borne the cost of his Defense.
Based on the violence that has occurred in Cote d’Ivoire over the last decade and the 2010 election strife, I was not totally surprised to see a rally outside the ICC on Tuesday. I became confused though when I approached the demonstration to see participants wearing t-shirts saying “Free Gbagbo” and holding banners calling Gbagbo a political prisoner. I initially assumed the 200+ demonstrators were there to see justice served against a tyrant, but on the contrary, they were loyal to Gbagbo and had come to support him.
I spent an hour or so talking with various protesters. Although a good number lived in the Netherlands, most seemed to have come from all over Western Europe, telling me they spent the night on buses from London, Paris, Berlin, and Milan to attend and would turn around and get back on the bus that same afternoon. I heard a litany of reasons for their presence there, with the most simple being that Gbagbo was a family friend or that he was born in the same community as the protester. Some said they came out because they felt he would be a better ruler than Outtara, while others felt he had been a scapegoat for an out-of-control military that acted of its own accord. Many voiced anger that Gbagbo’s inner circle have all been imprisoned under Outtara, including the former First Lady Simone Hehivet Gbagbo, his son, Michel Gbagbo, and former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan. Many chanted about one-sided justice, in which both sides had committed violence yet only Gbagbo was arrested. I was handed a leaflet calling the 2010 election a France-backed coup, a form of neocolonialism. A different leaflet I received showed graphic photos of dead bodies from a massacre that allegedly occurred on July 20, 2012, captions stating that Ouattara used the military to burn opponents alive and that he had established concentration camps. Another Ivorian-French man at the rally gave me an information sheet that had nothing to do with the 2010 election violence at all, but rather was demanding an answer as to who was responsible for the November 2004 bombing of a French military camp in Bouaké, which killed 9 French soldiers, one American civilian, and injured 38 others. The pro-Gbagbo demonstration simply gave him an audience and platform he needed to get his message across.
Here is some footage I took of the rally in its early hours when it was at its calmest: