Published 03 Aug 06
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Forgotten Interests: Why Côte d'Ivoire matters
Last week I participated on a panel on Capitol Hill under the aegis of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Côte d'Ivoire, co-chaired by Congressman John Boozman (R-Arkansas) and Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina).
After an introduction by the Congressional Research Service's director of African affairs, Nicolas Cook, who reviewed the context for the current crisis, three Ivorian envoys – Ambassador Saratta Ottro Zirignon-Touré, deputy chief of staff to Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo; Ambassador Daouda Diabate, Côte d'Ivoire's representative to the United States; and Ambassador Philippe Djangoné-Bi, permanent representative of Côte d'Ivoire to the United Nations – passionately made the case for their country, whose plight I have previously described in this column.
I had debated for some time what to do with the time that would be allotted to me as the panel's final speaker. There are many things that could be said concerning the crisis that has wracked the beautiful land of Côte d'Ivoire since September 2002, when a failed coup-turned-rebellion by disgruntled partisans of a failed military dictator, the maneuvers of a political leader ready to exploit the violence to accede to power, and the neo-colonial machinations of the country's former colonial rulers came together in a "perfect storm" of tragedy.
In the end, I decided to address, albeit summarily, the question that is often posed to me: "Well and fine, but why is it a concern of the United States?" I imagine the same question could be asked by readers who are puzzled by my devotion, week after week, of a column entitled "Strategic Interests" to conflicts and security concerns in remote places, especially in Africa, that are covered in almost no other forum and, more often than not, simply forgotten in calculations of U.S. foreign policy interests.
In general, my usual response to the query that I posed is to quote a genial line from Ambassador Herman J. Cohen, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President George H.W. Bush: "Non-vital interests need also require attention." However, upon reflection, what is at stake in Côte d'Ivoire – and many other "forgotten fronts" – is hardly "non-vital," both to our American ideals and our national interests as the United States of America. In the case of Côte d'Ivoire, the current situation and the international community's handling of it raise at least three major concerns:
- First, in the current Ivorian crisis, we have witnessed what is arguably the most aggressive international "legal" usurpation of the national sovereignty since the establishment of the United Nations.
The international community has responded to what was an internal rebellion by upending a sovereign member-state's constitutional order. And, I am sorry to say, through omission, the United States has gone along with it with hardly an afterthought.
For example, the Linas-Marcoussis roundtable (January 15-23, 2003), whose resulting "accords" have been the basis for much of the subsequent international activity, was convened by the French president and was a meeting of invited "political forces" in the absence of legal representation of the Ivorian state. Notwithstanding this fundamental defect, it proceeded to dictate the composition of the government in contradiction of the terms of the Constitution of the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire.
Since then, the UN has joined the fray and likewise played "footloose and free" with the Ivorian constitutional order, including last year's prorogation for one year of the presidential term (elections were supposed to take place in October 2006) while transferring some of President Laurent Gbagbo's constitutional prerogatives to the designated Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny. I should add that both gentlemen have done their best under circumstances that are highly irregular.
Likewise, in December of last year, the "International Working Group," a sub-bureaucracy of the UN Security Council established under Resolution 1633, decided to terminate the country's National Assembly, even though its mandate contains no authorization to pass such a judgment (under the terms of the Ivorian constitution, only the president or prime minister may dissolve parliament).
Most recently, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has speculated that the delayed elections may have to be delayed again because of difficulties with conducting the poll because rebels still hold sizable chunks of the northern part of the country – thanks, in largely, to the shield that the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI) and the parallel French occupation force, the "Force Licorne" have provided them.
The whole process can be likened to some external actor intervening in 1864 and saying that it was wrong to conduct the presidential election, which saw Abraham Lincoln reelected in the absence of the ability to conduct polls in the states of the Confederacy. While it is ideal that elections include the entire country, if that should prove impossible because of rebel control of certain areas then both historical and legal precedents favor holding the vote where the authority of the legitimate government is extent.
- Second, we should not condone a naked neo-colonial power grab on the part of a country whose foreign policy has largely been premised on being an obstacle to our own.
It is crucial to see the assault on Côte d'Ivoire's constitutional order for what it is and reject the French (and other parties') moves to take over the effective control of the country. In particular, it is not in the interests of the U.S. to allow French-induced anarchy to return Côte d'Ivoire to French domination.
In this respect, I am concerned not only with the fact that the French government drafts many of the United Nations documents relating to the situation in Côte d'Ivoire (and this despite France being a party to the conflict if not its instigator), but also with the "French connection" of a number of appointments made by the UN bureaucracy with respect to the international management of the peace process in the West African country, appointments which have taken place with little notice. For example, the recently appointed UN High Representative for Elections – the official charged with overseeing a legal, fair, and credible poll in Côte d'Ivoire – is one Gérard Stoudmann, a Swiss citizen.
Until his appointment, Monsieur Stoudmann served as director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. A closer examination reveals that he owed that position to the chairman of the Centre's Council, one François Heisbourg, who happens to be former director of the French Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique and who was previously head of the interagency group (groupe de travail interministériel) that oversaw, among other things, French strategic and military interests in its former colonial dominions.
In short, Monsieur Heisbourg is very much a member of the French foreign policy establishment, having first joined the French Foreign Ministry's Policy Planning Staff (Centre d'Analyse et de Prévision) in 1978. So much for even the appearance of impartiality in the electoral process…
Put frankly, it is not in U.S. long-term interests – or even, for that matter, short-term ones – to allow the French to get away with this coup-de-theatre putsch in West Africa. The African friends of elected democracy will suffer from such an example. The U.S. must stand by Côte d'Ivoire at its time of need and allow the rule of law, constitutional order, democracy, and, yes, our own enlightened self-interest (President Gbagbo has taken pro-U.S. stances and opened his country to American trade and investments which challenged French economic interests), to prevail.
- Third, the international community is currently allowing its fatigue and its "election fetish" to dictate a course of action that, rather than lead to a resolution of the crisis, will sow troubles for generations to come.
Key issues like disarmament and verification of citizenship cannot and should not be papered over in a rush to hold polls at any cost, for doing so does violence not only to justice today, but stores up trouble for tomorrow. In particular, if the present crisis in the Middle East tells us anything, it is that the international community cannot afford to allow armed groups to participate in political processes.
Yet that's what's happening in Côte d'Ivoire where some people are trying to push through electoral registration while the rebels remain armed (disarmament of militia began last week in areas controlled by the government), justifying themselves with pious assurances that it is important to bring the insurgents into the political process which will domesticate them. One wonders if some of these people have heard of Hezbollah or, if they have, whether they somehow still cling to the delusion that the terrorist group's ongoing participation in the feeble Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora is still somehow going to "moderate" it.
And, in passing, I would note that we Americans should, if no one else does, appreciate the importance of the ability to control borders and citizenship, one of the key issues concerning many Ivorians.
In short, America's principles as well as her interests – some very significant ones – in an increasingly strategically significant part of the world demand that the United States follows attentively the course of events in West Africa and other often-forgotten corners of the globe, rather than blithely letting the UN bureaucracy or the nebulous "international community" exert their inexorable momentum. That's why Côte d'Ivoire matters – and why America's "forgotten interests" should be neglected no longer.
– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.
© 2006 J. Peter Pham
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