Voicing distress over reports of xenophobic hate speech in Côte d'Ivoire and ensuing action by armed groups, the United Nations adviser on the prevention of genocide called today for an end to impunity and warned that the situation could be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
"The current crisis has deepened sentiments of xenophobia and could exacerbate already worrisome and widespread violations of human rights, which in the recent past have included extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention, disappearances and sexual violence," Juan E. Mendez said in a statement recommending possibly increasing the number of UN peacekeepers in Côte d'Ivoire to protect civilians.
Mr. Mendez, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Adviser, said he had written to the UN chief to express his concern at the situation in the West African country, which has been engulfed by escalating violence since government forces attacked northern rebels earlier this month in violation of a nearly two-year-old ceasefire agreement.
At least 10,000 Ivorians are estimated to have fled into neighbouring Liberia and thousands of expatriates have been evacuated, some with UN help, from Abidjan, the country's largest city, as anti-French rioting erupted after French troops destroyed the Government's air force in retaliation for the deadly bombing of French peacekeepers in the UN-patrolled Zone of Confidence (ZOC) separating the combatants.
UN officials have repeatedly condemned the hate messages broadcast on television and radio, most recently last Thursday when Mr. Annan himself warned that they could lead to "the devastating resurgence of ethnic conflict."
Mr. Mendez said today Ivorian authorities had an obligation to end impunity and curb public expressions of racial or religious hatred, warning that in the absence of effective action such incitement can be referred to the ICC.
He recommended that national authorities put an immediate end to the propagation of hate speech and media-induced violence through official outlets, aggressively prosecute all acts of violence and incitement, and recommit themselves to the ceasefire accords that ended the fighting two years ago between the government in the south and rebels in the north.
"If the xenophobic expressions persist and they cause further evacuation of essential humanitarian relief workers, the Special Adviser recommends that the UN and Licorne (French) troops already in the field should be expanded and instructed to deploy so as to afford direct protection to civilian population at risk of attack because of their ethnic, religious or citizenship status," the statement concluded.
UN officials are concerned that the unrest in Côte d'Ivoire could spill over into neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone, both recovering from protracted civil wars, and Guinea where there has also been unrest.