Views from the Field: Perspective on UN Presence in Côte d’Ivoire

Views from the Field: Perspective on UN Presence in Côte d’Ivoire

The primary expectation of populations in the countries or regions where UN missions or operations deploy is that they will be afforded appropriate protection. Populations also expect UN peacekeepers to be model citizens that improve the regions to which they are deployed. Côte d’Ivoire makes no exception.

Over a decade has passed since the UN began its peace operations in Côte d’Ivoire under the appellation UNOCI (the United Nations Operations in Côte d’Ivoire). Its primary objective was to enforce peace and foster hope in the West African nation where a failed 2002 military coup degenerated into a fierce belligerence between government troops, who controlled the south and a rebel group that held the northern part of the country.

The mission undertook remarkable actions towards restoring peace in Côte d’Ivoire, but it is evident that some of its actions resulted in negative and unintended consequences upon locals.

This contribution brings a local perspective on the presence of the United Nations peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire, with emphasis on two main aspects. Firstly, the reasons why the UN presence in the country was requested by the warring factions and the civil society, and secondly, the many challenges the UNOCI has faced since its deployment -challenges ranging from sexual exploitation and abuses to the incapacity to effectively provide protection for civilians. This paper ends with a summary of key lessons to be learned from the UN experience and presence in Côte d’Ivoire.


The failure of the Regional Force and the Request for a UN intervention

The first multinational peacekeeping force deployed in Côte d’Ivoire with objectives including monitoring the implementation of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement –signed between the warring factions in January 2003 in France– and the promotion of peacemaking and peacebuilding was a West African peacekeeping force known as MICECI (ECOMICI in English).

The ECOMICI policed the ceasefire but was unable to prevent skirmishes between the government troops and rebel forces that claimed many lives along the buffer zone and in the western region close to Liberia. The ECOMICI’s capacity to put an end to the escalating violence in the country was questioned. For the overwhelming majority of people in Côte d’Ivoire, the West African peacekeeping force had failed and only a UN-led peacekeeping force embodied the hope for peace and freedom.

In May 2003, the MINUCI, a small political mission created by the Security Council took over from the ECOMICI. In March 2004, The Security Council decided to strengthen UN presence in Côte d’Ivoire, establishing the UNOCI for an initial period of twelve months with a mandate that stressed the importance of the full implementation of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement which involved the monitoring of armed groups and the ceasefire; disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, repatriation, resettlement programmes and the protection of United Nations staff and civilians.

In the early stages of its deployment, UNOCI worked hard to maintain law and order and to promote human rights. But its sacrifices stood in stark contrast to the behavior of a minority of peacekeepers responsible for acts of sexual exploitation and abuse. The killings of civilians in areas under UN protection and Blue Helmets’ limited capacity to stop the deadly violence that erupted from the 2010 presidential elections have also tarnished the image of the organization.


Facing the Challenges of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

 UN peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire have reportedly been involved in acts of sexual exploitation and abuse since 2004, particularly in the central and western regions, in areas where desperate populations interact with well-paid UN staff and trade sex for promises of protection or to secure their most basic needs like clothing, food, soap and money.

Although underage girls and adult women were not forced to have sex with UN soldiers, it is hard not to notice how these vulnerable females were exploited. Sadly, UNOCI top officials dodged the issue until a campaign against sexual exploitation revealed that peacekeepers from Morocco had sex with a large number of minors. The scandal became public in May 2007 and shook the whole UN mission. The then Special Representative of the Secretary-General Choi Young-Jin, promised full investigation and reiterated a zero tolerance policy towards sexual exploitation and abuse. But all what the UN did was to suspend the 732-strong Moroccan contingent attached to the UN peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire and confine them to their barracks for a while.

A considerable number of views reflected the fact that the temporary confinement measure does not appear to be the type of “zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assault” that UN officials had promised. For many Ivorians, the troops involved in wrongdoings should have been punished. They should have been brought to justice for the crimes they were suspected of, rather than being confined to barracks or sent home. Very few are those who actually understand that the UN has no army of its own and depends on contributions from member countries for its peacekeeping missions and that UN peacekeepers are to be tried and detained in their home countries.

Although there have been recurrent cases of sexual abuses by peacekeepers, not all troop members are perpetrators. In fact, a majority of peacekeepers are model citizens as expected of them by the Ivorian population. However, lack of information and the unannounced repatriation of the peacekeepers who were involved in sexual abuses created a negative perception of the UNOCI. In some places in the country, this scandal has caused hostility towards the UN operations.


The Difficult Task of Providing Protection for Civilians

Did UNOCI effectively provide protection for civilians? There are several answers to this question. For some, UNOCI has effectively created the minimum level of security necessary for preventing massive human rights abuses. For others, however, the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire has fallen short of its mandate to protect the civilian populations. Those who support the idea that UNOCI’s was in a position to stop atrocity but failed to are quick to point out two deadly incidents that occurred in March 2011 and July 2012 in which many people were killed, in zones under the UN protection.

During the post-election armed conflicts in 2011, the western city of Duekoue experienced probably the worst atrocity of the crisis, with slaughtering of some 800 people, between March 27 and 29, 2011. It remains unclear who were responsible for the killings as the result of the investigation is yet to be released. However, that harrowing incident calls for further reflection as it occurred despite a robust presence of UN troops in the area.

UNOCI efforts and achievements in providing protection for civilians have also been blunted by an attack on a UN-guarded IDPs and refugee camp in a small town called Nahibly in which at least seven people were killed and dozens seriously injured. On July 20, 2012, around 3,000 people mostly youths from ethnic groups loyal to Cote D’Ivoire’s president Alassane Ouattara stormed the Nahibly camp to retaliate a previous deadly attack on their quarters. They set fire to the camp and destroyed its medical center and tents which sheltered some 5,000 people, mainly from the Guere ethnic group deemed to support ousted president Laurent Gbagbo. The attack was linked to tensions that remained high between groups that backed Ouattara and Gbagbo. Again, it occurred under the helpless gaze of UNOCI’s armed peacekeepers deployed to protect the camp and its residents.


Facing the Challenge of Post-conflict peaceful Elections

The UNOCI has effectively created an environment that allowed an effective political process that facilitated the holding of elections. However, by ignoring the numerous deficiencies and irregularities in the electoral process which began with the drawing up of the electoral register and the distribution of voters card, it gave its ‘green light’ to hold an election that entrenched the divisions it was aimed at resolving. In fact, the conditions for a peaceful election were not met when the population was called to the polls. It was one of the factors that led to the violent aftermath.


The Challenge of Neutrality and Impartiality

Maintaining neutrality and impartiality has been a difficult task for the UNOCI, particularly during the large-scale violence that marked the 2010 runoff election. UN staff found themselves torn between the use of force to protect civilians and the constraints of neutrality in a tension-filled stalemate created by the refusal of then incumbent president Gbagbo to accept defeat and a campaign by president-elect Ouattara for a regional military intervention to oust Gbagbo from the presidential villa.

The 1528 UN Resolution, under which the UNOCI was established, reaffirms the Security Council’s strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and unity of Côte d’Ivoire and recalls the importance of non-interference. At the same time, it authorizes the UN mission to “use all necessary means to carry out its mandate.”

The role played by UNOCI’s Blue Helmets in the execution of their mandate, especially their perceived alignment with forces loyal to Ouattara and their response to violence against civilians, still raises questions about the mission’s impartiality and neutrality, stirring vibrant debates among Gbagbo supporters that the UNOCI has abandoned its neutrality as peacemaker to become a partisan in the conflict. That opinion had led Gbagbo himself to describe UNOCI troops as “foreign invaders”, calling on his supporters to chase them from the country.

 The lessons to be learned from the UN operation in Côte d’Ivoire are many.


Conclusion: What lessons learned?

  • Sexual Exploitation and Abuse;

A successful application of gender balancing in UNOCI’s multinational military staff would have contributed to the decrease in the sexual allegations targeting peacekeepers. In fact, the presence of women soldiers would have discouraged sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers and encouraged local women to submit claims of sexual abuses to UNOCI.

  • Protecting Civilians;

UNOCI’s failure to act in a timely manner to adequately protect civilians was partially due to the fact that it lacked an operational clarity on constraints which contributed to a poor performance in executing the mandate to protect civilians. It is also arguable that the difficulty to effectively provide protection for civilian populations lies in the fact that there is often a blurred definition of who exactly is a civilian that merits protection. In the Ivorian context, some civilians appear to be both victims and perpetrators of atrocities against other civilians. UNOCI forces have operated in sensitive zones where distinguishing between ordinary civilians and militiamen was not an easy task. There is therefore a need for peacekeepers to understand the conflict situations and the operating environment. In addition, the UNOCI should continue its support for the implementation of an effective disarmament and reintegration program and combat the circulation of small arms and light weapons which is essential to restore peace and protect civilians.

  • The pressure to hold presidential elections;

The conditions for the holding of democratic elections were not met when the international community insisted that what Côte d’Ivoire required to end its crisis was to hold democratic elections. The parties had agreed that the elections would not be held until the following conditions had been met: the reunification of the country, the restoration of the national administration to all parts of the national territory, the disarmament of all militia and armed groups and their integration in the national security system. Such conditions did not exist when the elections were allowed to proceed and neither political actors, nor civil society organisations could withstand the international pressure to hold the elections. Any election held in such circumstances would inevitably entrench the divisions it was aimed at resolving. The Ivorian presidential elections should not have been held when they were held.

  • Neutrality and impartiality;

The blur surrounding UNOCI’s mandate and the complex articulation of the use of force, impartiality and neutrality have severely undermined the multinational peacekeeping force’s acceptability as a neutral force in the resolution of the Ivorian conflict. This confirms the need to reengineer the communication system of UNOCI and make its mandate clearer to the local population to douse the perception that UN is a mere instrument in the hands of the world’s major power to subjugate and oppress those who oppose them.

The UNOCI has faced and still faces a number of challenges. Its results are often judged to be low because the expectations perhaps were set too high.


Dr. Selay Marius Kouassi is a multi-award winning journalist, media researcher & trainer