Last week, a landmark trial began at the International Criminal Court. Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Côte d’Ivoire, and Charles Blé Goudé, who was youth and employment minister in Gbagbo’s government as well as the leader of the Young Patriots, a pro-Gbagbo militia group.

This trial is a huge milestone for the International Criminal Court, and for the cause of international justice more broadly. This is the first time that a head of state is being tried by the International Criminal Court.

The stakes are very, very high.

The Court will face an aggressive defense from the defendant’s legal team, which will be focusing on the role of former colonial power, France, as well as on pinning blame on the pro-opposition forces at the time. The latter point is key: the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) has been criticized – both in Côte d’Ivoire and internationally – for failing to launch a parallel investigation into the crimes committed by pro-opposition forces at the time. While the OTP has begun to investigate potential crimes committed by forces loyal to the current head of state, Alassane Ouattara, the fact that only Gbagbo and his lieutenant are on trial in the Hague today has undermined popular and political confidence in the process.

Who is charged, and for what?

The co-accused, Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé, are charged with four counts of crimes against humanity. The prosecution is focusing on four key events which took place after the contested presidential election in December 2010, for which they believe there is sufficient evidence to prove the culpability of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the prosecution, between December 2010 and April 2011, Gbagbo and Blé Goudé are said to have deployed Ivorian military and paramilitary forces in order to ensure that Gbagbo could stay in power. To reach this goal, deadly force was used against civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, “security forces and militiamen killed hundreds of real and perceived opposition supporters, shooting many at point-blank range while burning others alive and raping women.” Over 3,000 people lost their lives during the post-electoral crisis.

Initially, Simone Gbagbo, the former first lady, was also indicted, but the Ivorian judiciary declined to transfer her to the International Criminal Court. Her trial in Côte d’Ivoire ended last year with a conviction for her and 82 co-accused, resulting in a 20 year prison sentence for “undermining state security” – but she was never tried for the crimes against humanity which the ICC had indicted her for. The legal proceedings which lead to her conviction also failed to include any individuals with links to Alassane Ouattara, allowing Simone Gbagbo and the other accused to claim partiality and unfairness in the process.

How is the Ivorian public reacting to the trial?

Many in Côte d’Ivoire are closely following the proceedings. As Le Monde Afrique reported, Ivorian society continues to be polarized, and Gbagbo still enjoys a large popularity. The trial is being closely followed in Côte d’Ivoire, including by the Ouattara government, which – again according to Le Monde Afrique, is sending regular missives to the Court, countering the accused’s allegations against it. In a statement last week, the OTP noted that “unfortunately, some rumours are already circulating which are misleading to the general public in Côte d’Ivoire and beyond.” Accusations of partiality against the OTP are compounded by a general distrust (or misunderstanding) of the work of the ICC, particularly on the African continent, where the ICC’s apparent focus on African issues has undermined its ability to effectively engage in that context.

Gbagbo, who ruled the country for many years enjoyed – for better or worse – significant popularity in Côte d’Ivoire. Intelligent, eloquent and charismatic, Gbagbo is moreover convinced – or at least appears to be – of his own innocence. In spite of his physical absence from the Ivorian political stage, his party and followers still very much look to him as their leader, and he continues to wield significant influence in his country’s politics. Meanwhile, of course, many in Côte d’Ivoire profoundly distrust and resent him. Public opinion has been polarized in Côte d’Ivoire, and the ICC trial will likely stoke passions on both sides.

To understand how Laurent Gbagbo is perceived at home, we can look at the similarly ambiguous popular reaction back in 2012 when Liberia’s Charles Taylor was convicted by the The Special Court for Sierra Leone. At the time, I wrote that “Charles Taylor’s power still casts long shadows over Liberia – he is feared, revered, admired and detested by his country men and women.”

What are the possible outcomes and implications?

The Gbagbo trial represents a milestone for the International Criminal Court, and is also a test of the strength and relevance of the international legal regime. Should the trial result in a conviction for Gbagbo, it will be the first time ever that a former head of state is actually held to account for committing crimes against humanity by the ICC. This would represent a significant accomplishment for the ICC, and provide continued impetus to prosecute these types of crimes anywhere they take place. It would, hopefully, also represent a warning for current leaders – you cannot walk away unscathed if you commit atrocities against your own people; you will be held accountable.

In order for the process to yield positive gains in terms of justice and reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire, the ICC’s work will be strengthened if it investigates – and goes after – some of the perpetrators on the pro-Ouattara side. The Ouattara government’s “selective cooperation” with the ICC – both refusing to hand over Simone Gbagbo while at the same time defending itself against the accused’s allegations, as mentioned above – is also a significant hurdle to achieving genuine reconciliation. In the long run, for Côte d’Ivoire to be able to move forward from this dark period with a solid and widespread sense of justice, all war crimes and crimes against humanity – and not just those of the losing party – need to be investigated and prosecuted.

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