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The Specter of Genocide

7 minute read
Alex Perry

The woman had been trapped in her office for three days as fighting rocked the streets below and armed gangs roamed. Alexandra had survived on a package of cookies and two cans of soda. Finally, frantic that a promised rescue by a U.N. convoy did not materialize, she ran out of her building and into the dangerous streets, dashing two blocks to a nearby hotel. “This place is paradise,” she said to the staff, who took her in and provided her with water and some food, even though they were running low. “This place is paradise.”

On March 31, millions in the chic, sultry West African city of Abidjan, the center of power in Ivory Coast, abandoned their wine bars, high-rise offices and four-lane highways. They barricaded their apartments and watched, terrified, as the battle for their nation swept into town. Forces allied with northerner Alassane Ouattara, who was elected President on Nov. 28, fought troops loyal to southerner Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent, who delayed an election for five years, then refused to go when he lost.

(See pictures of Ivory Coast’s urban warfare.)

Mediation went nowhere, and from March 28 to 30, militias supporting Ouattara captured most of the country. But the battle for Abidjan, a city of 5 million, was always going to be bloody. Gbagbo had surrounded himself with thousands of troops and heavy weapons — mortars, mounted machine guns and artillery — and was believed to be in a bunker under the presidential residence. Its food supplies already low, the city ran so short of water that even Gbagbo’s thugs were knocking on doors begging for a drink. Thirsty civilians braved gunfire to draw water from the city’s polluted lagoons.

Meanwhile, the specter of genocide hung in the air as Gbagbo’s state television urged patriots to defend the nation, broadcasting pictures of bodies in the streets. Northerners and southerners daubed one another’s doors with signs to indicate tribal affiliation, a guide to enmity. In the western town of Duékoué, 800 people died in two separate massacres, apparently one by each side. The U.N. estimated that a million people were displaced.

Gbagbo seemed to be counting on the world’s doing little to stop what sounded like an all-too-familiar African tragedy. As with other autocrats — Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya — the country would burn. The world would watch in horror but just as quickly turn away. And after all the killing, rape and destruction, Gbagbo would remain.

(See pictures of the post-election violence in Ivory Coast.)

Almost no one, certainly not Gbagbo, foresaw an attack by U.N. peacekeepers. But on April 4, a squadron of white helicopters — two Mi-24s belonging to the U.N. and up to five French helicopters under U.N. command — swept low over the city through the evening rain and rocketed five of Gbagbo’s six military installations in Abidjan. An arms dump was hit, and fiery rocket-propelled grenades spun out crazily across the city. Within hours, Gbagbo’s troops were ditching their uniforms and deserting while his generals negotiated his surrender. “Again and again, we appealed to him to respect civilian populations,” says Edward Luck, a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “But the situation was on the verge of being out of control. So the [U.N.] Security Council upped the ante and said [U.N. peacekeepers] should take all necessary means to protect the population.”

A call to arms is not what you expect from the U.N. — and certainly not a military operation to overthrow a national leader. Luck says that in neither Ivory Coast nor Libya “did the Security Council set out for regime change.” But in Abidjan, it ended up doing exactly that. On March 30, the Security Council issued a resolution urging Gbagbo to “immediately step aside” and authorizing the U.N. force to do whatever was needed to protect civilians.

The operation that followed and its counterpart in Libya mark yet another step in the evolution of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine — Luck’s area of responsibility. The idea of R2P is simple enough: human rights are universal, every state should protect them, and if a particular state fails to do so, others should. But complications have arisen with putting R2P into practice.

(Read “Slaughter in Ivory Coast as the Grisly Political Standoff Intensifies.”)

The concept was first invoked in a 1967 campaign to persuade the West to intervene in Nigeria to end a civil war against Biafran secessionists, a conflict that resulted in the starvation of a million people. Initially, the idea was to provide emergency aid wherever it was needed. But in the 1980s and 1990s, a group of mostly French, mostly ex-socialist internationalists proposed humanitarian intervention — not just alleviating suffering but also extinguishing its causes with action across borders, military if needed. Shame and outrage at inaction during the 1992 massacre in Srebrenica and the 1994 Rwandan genocide led to NATO air strikes against Serbian forces attacking Kosovo Albanians in 1999 and British armed intervention against the rebel Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone in 2000. In 1999, British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed Kosovo as “a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values.”

Not everyone agreed with subordinating national sovereignty to the Western urge to “do something,” however, and many equated it with imperialism. Hence Kosovo was a NATO operation, not a U.N. one. When Blair invoked R2P as justification for invading Iraq, R2P’s credibility suffered along with his. Still, in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly reached consensus on the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

In that sense, Ivory Coast and Libya are R2P in a more acceptable form. In both cases, action was instigated not by the West but by a more appropriate region. It was the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that on March 24 first called on the U.N. to “use all means necessary to protect life and property” in Ivory Coast, and it was the Arab League that asked for a no-fly zone over Libya on March 12. “Who would have thought either of those would have done that five years ago?” asks Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the think tank Chatham House in London.

(Read “In Ivory Coast, as Abidjan Is Ransacked, Where Is Gbagbo?”)

But even if humanity is indivisible, support for R2P will never be — because intervention is never neutral. Despite ECOWAS’s demand that he go and France’s insistence that it is fighting for the U.N., Gbagbo has not viewed his bombing as impartial. “France [has] entered directly into war against us,” he told French television April 4. Two days later, 3,000 militiamen surrounded Gbagbo’s residence, vowing to die fighting. “It is absolute mayhem here,” said a nearby resident. “There are youths driving around in 4-by-4s, shooting in the air. We can hear gunfire. And the smell of corpses is getting worse.”

with reporting by Monica Mark / Abidjan, Ishaan Tharoor / New York and Bruce Crumley / Paris

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.

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