COTE D’IVOIRE: The UN’s mission impossible?

In Côte d’Ivoire’s post-election turmoil, with two political camps claiming power and widespread fear of renewed war, the UN’s operation in the country has been in the spotlight, and lately – literally – in the line of fire.

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Since a UN mission first came to the country in 2004 Côte d’Ivoire the UN has monitored and supported peace efforts as several accords have come and gone; prior to the 28 November presidential election a number of tasks remained incomplete, like disarmament and the deployment of civil administration in the rebel-controlled north.

Now the UN Security Council’s firm endorsement of Alassane Ouattara as victor in the election has triggered a fierce response from supporters of incumbent president and Ouattara rival Laurent Gbagbo.

Hostility towards the UN intensified as international pressure on Gbagbo to leave grew. In an 18 December broadcast on national television (still controlled by Gbagbo’s administration), a Gbagbo spokesperson announced that the UN working alongside the French military had “interfered seriously in the internal affairs of Côte d’Ivoire”, and both parties must leave the country immediately.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rejected the call for a UN withdrawal, emphasizing that the UN mission would “fulfill its mandate and will continue to monitor and document any human rights violations, incitement to hatred and violence, or attacks on UN peacekeepers”. On 20 December the UN Security Council extended the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) for six months. The Secretary-General denounced a recent incident in which men in military uniform shot at UN troops; the Ivoirian military officially backs Gbagbo.

While the current rift between Gbagbo and the UN is markedly more serious than in the past, Gbagbo and his supporters’ open disdain for the UN operation is not new; he has repeatedly accused the body of stepping on Ivoirian sovereignty and demanded the departure of top UN officials through the years.

On the Gbagbo camp’s charges of UN partiality in the current election row, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General Y.J. Choi recently told reporters: “One camp wrongly believes that UNOCI is by choice refusing to help it with military force; the other camp equally wrongly says UNOCI is helping the other camp militarily.”

Why is there a UN operation in Côte d’Ivoire?

Côte d’Ivoire’s first-ever coup d’état in December 1999 and the violence that marred October 2000 elections provoked concern in the international community over this bastion of prosperity and stability in the region. A September 2002 failed coup and subsequent insurgency rapidly developed into a regional crisis. But the UN’s initial profile was fairly low, taking a back seat as France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led both diplomatic and military initiatives.

After the signing of a peace pact known as Linas-Marcoussis, the UN Security Council in February 2003 appointed the first UN Special Envoy to Côte d’Ivoire, the post going to veteran Beninois politician and academic Albert Tévoédjrè.

The following May the UN Security Council went further, establishing the UN Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (MINUCI), initially for six months, with a mandate to help “facilitate implementation” of the Linas-Marcoussis accords, help plan for disarmament and monitor human rights violations.

Both the rebels “Forces Nouvelles” (FN) and the Gbagbo government apparently welcomed the UN’s presence, with Gbagbo writing a letter to the UN Secretary-General in November 2003 requesting a full peacekeeping mission. Resolution 1528 in March 2004 created the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) within the framework of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, calling for over 6,240 personnel. Authority over MINUCI and ECOWAS was transferred to UNOCI.

UN Security Council resolutions on Côte d’Ivoire

What is UNOCI’s mandate?

While resolutions invariably stressed that it was for the Ivoirian parties to implement peace accords, UNOCI was given a wide-ranging brief. This included:

Monitoring ceasefire arrangements and the movements of armed groups;
Assisting with the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants;
Ensuring that identification and voter registration were carried out in secure conditions;
Assisting in security sector reform;
Protecting UN personnel, institutions and civilians;
Monitoring an arms embargo;
Supporting humanitarian assistance;
Providing human rights assistance.

Following the signing of the Ouagadougou peace accord, brokered by Burkinabé President Blaise Compaoré in March 2007, the UN was involved in efforts to reunite the country, supporting the redeployment of civil servants to the rebel-held north.

What is the current size of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire?

As of November 2010 UNOCI’s presence stood at 9,105 uniformed personnel, including 7,576 troops, 193 military observers and 1,336 police. In addition to this, the mission has 383 international civilian personnel, 738 local staff and 267 UN Volunteers.

UNOCI includes special divisions for human rights, legal and political affairs, disarmament, gender and the protection of children. The mission also has its own radio station UNOCI-FM, with a substantial listenership in both Abidjan and throughout the country.

With the post-election violence, UNOCI and other UN agencies recently evacuated hundreds of non-essential staff. 

Are the UN troops in Côte d’Ivoire allowed to use force?

Created under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, UNOCI – if it finds that other measures such as economic penalties or interruption of communications are inadequate to stop aggression/maintain peace – can take action “by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”

What is France’s military presence in Côte d’Ivoire?

A mutual defence accord signed between Côte d’Ivoire and France in 1961 allowed for the retention of a French military presence, with the 43rd Marine Infantry Battalion stationed in Port Bouet on the southern outskirts of Abidjan. The crisis in September 2002 saw a much higher profile French engagement, with the deployment of the Force Licorne helping end a rebel push south. But in November 2004 the Ivoirian armed forces launched an offensive in the north, killing nine French soldiers in an airstrike on a French military base. France’s prompt retaliation, destroying Ivoirian military aircraft, triggered a wave of anti-French rioting in Abidjan and elsewhere and a series of stand-offs between French soldiers and demonstrators in which over 50 civilians were killed.

Licorne now has 900 men under arms and is mandated to operate in support of UNOCI, while also having the right to protect French nationals and other citizens.

What role has the UN played in elections?

The UN consistently pushed for free and fair elections, in successive progress reports noting hold-ups in voter registration and other key preparatory measures.

In April 2006 then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Swiss national Gérard Stoudmann as the UN’s High Representative for Elections, taking over from Portuguese diplomat Antonio Monteiro. But following protests by President Laurent Gbagbo the UN Security Council abolished the post, saying the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Côte d’Ivoire “shall certify that all stages of the electoral process provide all the necessary guarantees for the holding of open, free, fair and transparent presidential and legislative elections in accordance with international standards, and requests the Secretary-General to take all the necessary steps so that the Special Representative has at his disposal a support cell providing him all the appropriate assistance to fulfil this task”. 

UNOCI’s Electoral Division was mandated to work closely with the recognised electoral authorities and international organisations right up to the announcement of results. The division had 16 regional electoral bureaus across the country, mandated to give advice and technical assistance to 430 local electoral commissions. 

What sanctions has the UN imposed?

From the beginning of the Ivoirian conflict in September 2002, the UN took an active interest in monitoring arms trafficking and the recruitment of mercenaries. The UN later imposed a ban on Côte d’Ivoire’s diamond exports and a military embargo. After the government’s thwarted offensive in November 2004, the UN Security Council also called for sanctions, the freezing of bank accounts and travel bans, for individuals “who constitute a threat to the peace and national reconciliation process”. A Group of Experts was set up under UN auspices to monitor the implementation of sanctions, but found its work complicated by both the rebels and the Gbagbo government.

Why did the UN fall out with Gbagbo?

While the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) arrived with the conflict effectively over and an urgent need for rebuilding at every level, UNOCI came into Côte d’Ivoire with the country partitioned and an unconvincing peace process in motion. As a regional economic powerhouse, with strong state institutions, there was never going to be a similar surrender of sovereignty to the one that took place in Liberia, particularly with a government convinced it was under attack from outside powers (Burkina Faso and France). UNOCI senior officials complained from early on about a lack of cooperation from the government, while Gbagbo made little attempt to conceal his suspicion of then UN Special Representative Pierre Schori and others he felt were taking on roles beyond their station.

The UN was openly critical of the government’s offensive in November 2004, while also raising concern about excesses of the state media and the use of highly inflammatory propaganda. Whatever criticisms the UN voiced over the conduct of the rebels, these were overshadowed by criticisms directed at Gbagbo loyalists.

The government showed little interest in combating disinformation or halting street protests. When the International Working Group (IWG), of which the UN was a key member, was accused of wanting to suspend parliament in January 2006, UN property and personnel came under attack in a wave of protests in Abidjan and elsewhere in the country.



Theme (s): Conflict, Governance, Human Rights, Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]