Let no one fool you that the war is over in Côte d'Ivoire.
So said a Liberian member of a violent rebel group that seeks to overthrow the government of war-torn Ivory Coast. The militant was speaking to researchers from Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organization whose stated mission is the protection of human rights around the world.
The group released a report on Wednesday revealing that the conflict in Ivory Coast involves mercenaries from neighboring Liberia. Together, Ivorian and Liberian militants have abducted children, murdered civilians and raided communities in Ivorian villages.
Liberian fighters have been involved in atrocities across the subregion for more than a decade and remain a threat to Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia as these countries try to move on from periods of massive human rights violations, said Matt Wells, a West Africa researcher at HRW.
Ivory Coast was once a stable and relatively prosperous country, but a 1999 coup and a 2002 civil war upended progress there. Discord between the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south has been a source of tension ever since.
Today the country is led by President Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim and former economist who faces fervent opposition from many Liberians who supported his one-time opponent, former President Laurent Gbagbo.
When the incumbent Gbagbo lost the 2010 election to Ouattara, he refused to vacate his post and was only ousted after international forces mobilized against him. Gbagbo's obstinacy emboldened his supporters, and violence erupted across the country following Ouattara's ascension to the presidency.
Gbagbo was subsequently indicted for crimes against humanity and flown to the Hague, Netherlands, to be tried by international courts. The Ivory Coast is now working toward stability, but HRW reveals that the ongoing violence is aided by Liberian fighters and often organized on Liberian land.
The attacks are sporadic but fatal.
Since July 2011, at least 40 Côte d'Ivoire residents, including women and children, have been killed during four cross-border attacks that targeted civilians from ethnic groups who largely support President Alassane Ouattara, said the HRW report.
Marauders Without Borders
The situation in the Ivory Coast recalls previous violence carried out in Sierra Leone; there too, Liberian forces were involved in recruiting child soldiers to massacre civilians and fight against the central government. Those militants were aided and abetted by then-Liberian President Charles Taylor. Taylor was overthrown in 2003 and later indicted; in April of this year, he was convicted of war crimes by an international court at the Hague.
The violence in the Ivory Coast is also mirrored by an ongoing crisis in central Africa, where the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, is engaged in a militant campaign that involves the habitual abduction of children. That movement originated in Uganda to fight against the government there and establish an independent state and is now based in heavily forested areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The current rebel movement in the Ivory Coast has not matched the scale of violence in either Sierra Leone or central Africa. U.N. officials monitoring the border area told Human Rights Watch that they did not think the armed groups hostile to the Ivorian government had sufficient strength to carry out a large-scale attack, said the HRW report.
However, they said the armed militants have the ability to continue conducting cross-border raids that target and kill perceived Ouattara supporters.
Furthermore, the militants have voiced intentions to strengthen their operation. These goals are especially worrisome because the rebels seem to have access to funding and other resources. There is a semblance of hierarchical organization as well, implying that this movement could have deep roots.
Many of those involved in the attacks are engaged in artisanal gold mining along the Liberian border, and they told Human Rights Watch that profits go up a chain of command, states the report. Several people involved in planning attacks also told Human Rights Watch that they receive financial support from people in Ghana, where much of the Gbagbo political and military elite are in exile.
This confluence of Ghanaian, Liberian and Ivorian involvement only aggravates the conflict. In the aftermath of several catastrophic civil wars, the connections between militants and their allies in West Africa are deeply entrenched and often inscrutably complex.
This regional problem demands a regional response, explained Wells. Ghanaian and Liberian authorities need to demonstrate greater willingness to prosecute or extradite to Côte d'Ivoire people who committed or oversaw atrocities during the Ivorian crisis.
Enforcing the Issue
The report also calls Liberia to task specifically, arguing that the government should take decisive action to find and persecute rebels who operate within the country.
Specifically, HRW argues that the government should quickly ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, an accord that was signed by Liberian officials in 2004. That signature implied an intention to implement the agreement, but a full ratification would require the government to take decisive action.
The protocol prohibits any armed group from recruiting children under 18 and obliges governments to take measures to prevent and criminalize such practices, explained HRW, adding that Liberia is already compelled to take stronger action against the militants since it has ratified the Geneva Conventions.
But Liberia quickly protested against the report's implication of inaction. Information Minister Lewis Brown issued a statement saying that the Liberian government was shocked by a report from the Human Rights Watch in which it is alleged that the government is not doing enough to contain cross-border attacks from Liberia into Ivory Coast, reports the South African Press Association.
Brown's statement added that the two countries were already working together to plan a joint operation against the rebel forces, and Voice of America confirms that Liberia has detained over 100 suspected mercenaries since April of last year.
Keeping the Kids Occupied
There is so far no word from Brown or other spokespersons on whether or not Liberian officials will sign the children's rights protocol as suggested by HRW. However, the president has laid out some long-term plans to combat the military recruitment of children.
Liberia is run by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman ever elected to lead any modern African country. In the aftermath of a 14-year civil war that killed over 200,000 people, Sirleaf has worked to repair Liberia's demolished infrastructure and unite deeply divided factions within the country, which is still rife with tension and instability.
In an interview with Time magazine last year, Sirleaf explained that the greatest accomplishment of her tenure so far was to invest in education.
We enforced compulsory primary education, and enrollment in public schools more than doubled. ... The most permanent thing is an education. They can steal your car, they can burn your house, [but what] you have in your head, nobody can take away from you, she said.
Her biggest remaining challenge? Getting young people employed ... [people] who were child soldiers, she said.
In Liberia, more than half the population is under 19 years old. Job statistics there are difficult to calculate precisely, but the CIA pegged the unemployment rate at 85 percent just after the civil war. Today, about 76 percent of Liberia's population lives in poverty.
In short, the country is full of young people who are disadvantaged and unmoored after years of violent clashes. This has made Liberia a ripe recruiting ground for Ivorian rebel forces.
In the long term, then, Sirleaf's plan to get Liberian youth educated and employed would be an effective way to address the problem of Ivory Coast-related violence.
But for now, HRW argues that enforcing tougher security is the best immediate solution.
Human Rights Watch called on Liberia to fulfill its responsibility as a member state of the International Criminal Court and pass legislation to enable the domestic prosecution of atrocity crimes committed anywhere in the world, said the report.