September 29, 2011 / 5:59 AM / 6 years ago

Ivory Coast launches post-conflict quest for truth

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara appears on the French TF1 television prime time evening news show prior to an interview, September 13, 2011 in Paris. REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool

YAMOUSSOUKRO (Reuters) - Ivory Coast has launched a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission on Wednesday to try to heal the wounds of a post-election conflict that killed more than 3,000 people and drove a million from their homes.

The 11-man commission, which includes English Premier-league soccer star Didier Drogba representing the Ivorian diaspora, was inaugurated by President Alassane Ouattara at a ceremony in the political capital Yamoussoukro.

Drogba, whose Chelsea FC club was playing the European Champions League on Wednesday, did not attend the ceremony.

“We will have to tackle difficult questions such as the land issue in rural areas and identity questions,” Ouattara said at the ceremony.

The reconciliation process is seen vital to restoring a lasting peace to the West African nation.

Charles Konan Banny, Ivory Coast’s former prime minister who heads the commission, said the country was seeking peace and reconciliation in the process.

“The commission does not have amnesty powers, nor powers to absolve anyone or seek vengeance,” Banny said.

Those who are not pardoned may be tried. A group of world statesmen founded by Nelson Mandela said punishment must be handed down fairly to those guilty of crimes on both sides.

“The perception that ‘victor’s justice’ is being applied would greatly undermine the reconciliation process,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s.

Tutu, head of the “Elders” group of statesmen set up by Mandela in 2007, said in a statement the committee must remain impartial and independent, and not rush its findings.

The 2010 election in the world’s top cocoa grower was supposed to draw a line under a 2002-2003 civil war that split the country into a government-held south and rebel-held north.

But ex-leader Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to accept defeat under UN-certified results reopened old tensions between ethnic groups.

As pro-Ouattara troops advanced south from their heartland in the north, both sides carried out ethnic violence and score-settling which has not been fully investigated nearly six months after Gbagbo’s capture and arrest.

The cocoa sector, which forms the basis of the country’s economy, has recovered after hundreds of thousands of tonnes languished in port warehouses because of a de facto embargo on exports during the conflict. This past season saw a record crop and hopes are high for next season.

Yet the security picture is much less clear-cut, with reports of attacks on village communities by mercenaries, and thousands of refugees still afraid to return home from neighbouring states including Liberia and Ghana.

The Commission on Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation will initially study the work of other such commissions around the world. A key issue is seen as drawing the line between those crimes which can be pardoned and those to be punished.

Gbagbo himself remains in detention in the north of the country. Ouattara said this month he will be tried in Ivory Coast on “economic crimes” and face justice at the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

Critics complain that not one of Ouattara’s men has been detained, despite evidence that they too committed abuses.

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