The UN Security Council on Wednesday unanimously ordered sanctions against Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo in a bid to make him give up power. Security Council Resolution 1975 imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Gbagbo, his wife Simone, and three of his closest associates.
The 15-nation council made its most explicit demand yet for Gbagbo to stand down in a vote only hours after fighters loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized president, seized Yamoussoukro, administrative capital of the world's number one cocoa producing nation.
The unrest in recent months has left hundreds dead and France's ambassador Gerard Araud warned that the fighting could soon spread to the main city Abidjan. "Gbabgo must go, it is the only way to avoid a full-fledged civil war and maybe bloody violence in the streets of Abidjan," Araud, whose country proposed Resolution 1975 with Nigeria, told reporters.
"The unthinkable is taking place before our eyes," said Nigerian ambassador Joy Ogwu, adding that there are widespread killings and rapes. "The unrest is spiralling out of control," she told the council. The resolution again highlighted that attacks on civilians could be crimes against humanity which can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.
The African Union, the West African regional body, ECOWAS and other international bodies have all recognized Ouattara as president and the UN has a force of more than 11,000 peacekeepers in the country. About 800 troops are protecting Ouattara's headquarters in an Abidjan hotel, which is under siege by Gbagbo forces.
Several envoys demanded that the UN mission, UNOCI, act impartially and opposition from China, India, South Africa and Brazil forced changes to the draft resolution which had stressed "the need to seize heavy weapons" from Ivory Coast militias. The final version said that the UN force should act to "prevent the use of heavy weapons." The UN peacekeeping mission "should not become a party to the Ivorian political stalemate. The UNOCI should also not get involved in a civil war," warned India's ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri.
UNOCI said this week that a UN helicopter had been shot at by forces loyal to Ouattara in the west of the country. The Ivory Coast envoy to the UN, Youssoufou Bamba, who was named by Ouattara, denied that his forces had shot at the helicopter. "My government condemns any attack, of whatever kind, against UNOCI," Bamba said, vowing that "concrete measures" will be taken to bring to justice any person who attacks UN forces or civilians.
The United Nations estimates that more than one million people have fled their homes as the conflict has mounted since the November election, the first since a 2002 civil war which tore the country apart for several years.
Rights groups said the international community is still being too soft on Gbagbo whose camp has called for a ceasefire. "As Gbagbo tries to position himself as part of the solution, we shouldn't forget that he is anything but: he is the problem. He lost the election, and he has lost his legitimacy. The people of Ivory Coast are at immense and imminent risk. Where is the world community?" said Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group.
Philippe Bolopion, UN specialist for Human Rights Watch, called the sanctions "an important, if overdue, step" to help the Ivory Coast people "who continue to suffer unbearable abuse. But as events are quickly unfolding on the ground, the council needs to keep considering all the tools at its disposal to prevent mass atrocities", he said.