Where Humanitarian Imperatives and Representation Collide

Ending mass violence involves simultaneous analysis of factors, and often occurs in an information vacuum. Frequently, there’s moral imperatives that cannot be weighted appropriately.

Consider the following episode monitored by Human Rights Watch:

“(Police) went into the house of the other (activist) to capture him. He said, “no, no…at least let me put my shoes on,” but they screamed at him and dragged him into a truck with another man. About a week later we finally found their bodies in the morgue.”

It’s likely you could attribute this incident to any number of scenarios around the world. Maybe you thought it was Libya. But does it matter? Do violations transmute once we place them in pre-determined contextual narratives to help understand?

The victim was an elections monitor in Côte d’Ivoire, and a supporter of Alassane Ouattara, elected democratically in last November’s elections. The incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo staged a constitutional coup, and the highest court promptly threw out 600,000 votes and swore in Gbagbo. Since November, Côte d’Ivoire’s political stalemate has led to killings of perceived and real supporters of Ouattara, widespread torture and rape, and several crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations. Ouattara’s forces are not innocent either; they were allegedly involved in “intercommunal” violence in Duékoué that left 800 dead in their advance to Abidjan. Gbagbo has since been deposed, but the struggle will be far from over in an incredibly fragmented country with both sides heavily armed.

Same Old, Same Old

The regional West African body, ECOWAS, the AU, and the UN all denounced Gbagbo’s hold on power, and a peacekeeping force proposed by ECOWAS and the AU was scrapped. The UN placed sanctions on Gbagbo, and several AU and ECOWAS mediations were sent to little effect.

On 30 March, the UN Security Council authorised the use of force for Côte d’Ivoire’s peacekeeping force, UNOCI. While this is a decisive action, it’s not as robust as the resolution on the crisis in Libya that authorised NATO intervention and explicitly cited the responsibility to protect (R2P). Despite intense human suffering in Libya, there are many good arguments on why intervention was a bad idea. But would there have been intervention if Libya hadn’t been framed as the latest – and bloodiest – in the Arab Spring?

My own thinking is still evolving on R2P implementation, and in some sense it doesn’t matter because many of its principles are already encoded in international law. The purpose of this blog is to examine why equally compelling cases were treated differently.

Here are my two theories on WHY Côte d’Ivoire wasn’t a priority, even when UNOCI began to be attacked.

1) At the heart of it, there are simply two sets of rules: one for countries that have strategic value, and one for those who don’t.

2) Constituencies, when mobilised, can actually produce a fair amount of influence on their representatives (just read Rebecca Hamilton’s Fighting for Darfur). Though it’s a long process, our conceptual framework never processed Côte d’Ivoire for what it was, and attributed it to the kind of African inexorable tribal conflict we presume to be happening all the time.

Though there are ethnic divisions, they are the product of successful political manipulation that constructed “Ivorité,” a xenophobic and ultra-nationalist policy that has positioned Southerners as “real” Ivorians and Muslims, immigrants, and those from the North (particularly immigrants from Burkina Faso) as foreigners. Ouattara, who is a Muslim Northerner and has parents of Burkinabé origin, was prevented from contesting in 2000. Gbagbo himself resisted the idea until he seized power in 2002. After raping a girl, the Young Patriots, a pro-Gbagbo militia mobilised by state radio, told her “Go tell Alassane it was us who did this to you,” identifying the motivation behind the act as political.

In Judith Butler’s work,she suggests that humans are born “precarious”, and those who need protection from their governments and are socioeconomically vulnerable are “ungrievable (meaning lives not fully lived and unworthy of protection);” grievability is assessed on a threshold of constructed norms that are reproduced and reinstated implicitly. Public awareness and campaigns can help change this frame. So why was grievability produced in Libya, but not in Côte d’Ivoire? Were Libyans more sympathetic because a) they were strategic and relevant, and b) we were familiar with the tragic situation based on the Arab Spring narrative?

One of the most visceral images in Côte d’Ivoire was that of a woman holding a sign in French reading “Gbagbo: Pharaoh of Modern Times.” As ZunguZungu wrote of the woman in a thoughtful post, these Ivorians were trying to make us see the crackdown “as a particular kind of atrocity…happening outside of the narrative frame of ‘another African civil war’ and placed as ‘another dictator clinging to power by violently suppressing popular protest.’ Like Ben Ali. Like Mubarak.

R2P, Ivory Coast, Humanitarian Intervention