After Libya, the Ivory Coast: Should the U.N. Sanction Military Intervention?

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Yesterday, TIME’s Monica Mark reported from Abidjan of the spiraling crisis in the Ivory Coast:

The erstwhile beacon of prosperity and stability in West Africa has been held hostage for five months by incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after losing a November runoff presidential election. Instead, he has mobilized the state apparatus and a fanatical core of young militants against the citizens who voted for his challenger, Alassane Ouattara. Daily battles rage between a burgeoning pro-Ouattara insurgency in Abidjan known as the “invisible commandos,” and the army, which backs Gbagbo. At least 460 deaths have been confirmed since mid-December, according to the U.N. mission there, known as ONUCI.

While much of the international community frets about Libya and the upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world, all signs point to a full-fledged Ivorian civil war. And as Gbagbo rallies his supporters with xenophobic calls to rout Outtara and the supposed “foreigners” — mainly descendants of West African migrants — who follow him, observers are warning of a looming slaughter that could rival the intensity of the chaos in Rwanda a decade and a half ago. In a startling Open Letter to the U.N. Security Council, Louise Arbour, President of the International Crisis Group, a conflict-monitoring international NGO, warned: “Civil war in the country has been reignited; we are no longer warning of the risk of war, but urging swift action to halt the fighting and prevent ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocity crimes.”

The call is the strongest statement yet on the need for serious international intervention into the country, backing a resolution passed Thursday by ECOWAS, a regional grouping of West African states, that would allow for African troops to be sent in to stabilize the situation and likely remove Gbagbo from power. Some half a million Ivorians have fled or been displaced by ongoing gun battles and the chaos, says Arbour, threatens to spread to the Ivory Coast’s “fragile neighbours, Liberia and Guinea-Conakry.”

TIME interviewed the head of U.N. operations in the Ivory Coast, Choi Young Jin, who offered this pledge: “There will not be the tragedies of Sierra Leone, Rwanda or Liberia in Ivory Coast. I guarantee that — not under my watch. They will not take place.” But Arbour’s view of the U.N.’s capabilities on the ground—with around 9,000 troops—is dimmer and more skeptical:

Unfortunately, UNOCI appears overwhelmed by the situation. Intimidated by constant harassment from Gbagbo’s camp, UNOCI is unable to implement its mandate to protect civilians subjected to violence or the threat of violence. The UN’s posture in the country must change, and UNOCI must be required to use force when necessary to carry out its mandate effectively.

Arbour served on the international criminal tribunals that sought to prosecute those responsible for the genocides in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. As the death toll rises (the U.N. counts some 440 fatalities since the political crisis began), Arbour notes:

There are reports of sexual violence, summary execution and individuals being burnt alive. Gbagbo’s militias continue to perpetrate violence and organise road blocks controlled by armed men, and elements in the Ouattara camp have also been implicated in targeting civilians.

But there are no indications that Gbagbo is willing to relent, or that Outtara has the rebels flocking to his standard on anything close to a tight leash. Today, France and Nigeria “circulated” a draft resolution to members of the Security Council that would ban heavy weapons in an around Abidjan (the country’s biggest city), levy sanctions on Gbagbo and some of his allies and allow U.N. peacekeepers to use greater force than what their current, limited mandate permits. But it’s not clear when action will be taken on this or even whether the proposed draft will go to a vote next week.

Even if a decisive resolution gets passed, the U.N. mission may still be unable to cope with the escalating conflict, and reinforcements from neighboring nations and further abroad will be necessary, says Arbour of the Crisis Group: “Preparedness for this all-too likely scenario is not only essential, but a fundamental responsibility of the Council and its Members.” With the intervention in Libya already facing myriad political and tactical challenges, it’s hard to imagine many in the world’s leading governments sharing Arbour’s humanitarian zeal.

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