Arms transfers fuel instability in Ivory Coast

March 20, 2013 - 10:28 AM

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — External arms transfers that played a pivotal role in Ivory Coast's decade-long political crisis continue to fuel instability and human rights abuses, Amnesty International said in a report Wednesday.

The group documented transfers involving arms traffickers both before and after the United Nations Security Council placed the West African nation under an arms embargo in November 2004. These weapons were then used in violence stemming from Ivory Coast's protracted political crisis, which led to a five-month conflict that claimed more than 3,000 lives following the November 2010 presidential election, the report said.

"Ivory Coast provides a chilling reminder of how even a U.N. embargo can fail to halt arms from flowing freely to warring parties, with devastating consequences for the civilian population," said Amnesty International's Secretary-General Salil Shetty.

The report was released to coincide with the U.N. conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, which opened Monday.

West Africa researcher Salvatore Sagues said the effects of arms transfers on Ivory Coast highlighted the need for a provision in the treaty that would require signatories to halt transfers to countries where there was "a substantial risk" the arms might be used in human rights abuses. Sagues also recommended the embargo for Ivory Coast be extended another year.

"This arms embargo is highly justified by the fact that the security forces have used these arms to attack people, to torture people and to intimidate people," he said.

Amnesty said illegal arms transfers benefited fighters who backed current President Alassane Ouattara as well as those loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to leave office despite losing the November 2010 vote sparked the postelection violence.

Ivorian military officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The transfers started in 2002, the year an uprising against then-President Gbagbo allowed rebel forces to take control of the north of the country, the report said. In response, Gbagbo's government increased the amount of money spent on military hardware to what eventually became more than 10 percent of the national budget, it said.

Though arms transfers to Gbagbo's government before the November 2004 sanctions regime went into effect were not illegal, Amnesty said they were irresponsible and argued that it was "starkly evident" that the crisis could escalate. The transfers included armored vehicles from Angola, ammunition from China, attack helicopters from Belarus and Bulgaria and two unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft from Israel, the report said.

The attack helicopters were used to strike in the north in November 2004. After the postelection conflict began late 2010, live ammunition, rockets and mortar bombs were used to disperse pro-Ouattara demonstrations or target pro-Ouattara neighborhoods.

A network that included Gbagbo-allied officials collaborated with "numerous foreign companies" to repeatedly violate the sanctions regime by importing nonlethal items such as tear gas as well as lethal weapons and ammunition, according to findings from a U.N. expert panel cited in the report. The panel also said it had evidence that authorities in Senegal and Guinea were approving transfers to Ivory Coast.

Immediately after the disputed 2010 election, a pro-Gbagbo special unit known as CECOS received fragmentation grenades, mortar shells, pistols and ammunition for assault rifles, the panel found. Some of these weapons, notably the fragmentation grenades, were used against civilians during the crisis, the report said.

Sagues said it was far more difficult to track transfers to pro-Ouattara fighters, though Amnesty International and the U.N. expert panel turned up evidence that arms were illegally diverted to the fighters from Burkina Faso. A spokesman for the government of Burkina Faso did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the end of the postelection violence last year, many of the arms originally intended for Gbagbo loyalists have ended up in the hands of Ouattara's army, the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast, which has been charged with a host of rights abuses, the report said. In recent months, Amnesty International and other groups have accused the army of torturing Gbagbo supporters as well as attacking a camp for displaced persons last July.

A military police force created in late 2011 in part to curtail the misuse of arms has not been up to the task, Sagues said.

"These military police, using these arms, have really been used as a repressive force to attack and to intimidate any person accused of being a Gbagbo supporter, including on the grounds of ethnicity and alleged political affiliation," he said.

Ivorian military officials have previously disputed reports of torture and other rights abuses.