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U.N. in Test of Wills over Cote d’Ivoire Crisis

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 21 2010 (IPS) - The United Nations is taking an unrelenting stand on the spreading constitutional crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, where two contenders – one victorious and the other vanquished – are battling it out for the country’s presidency.

A Jordanian-formed police unit provides security at UNOCI. Credit: UN Photo/Basile Zoma

A Jordanian-formed police unit provides security at UNOCI. Credit: UN Photo/Basile Zoma

But a question lingering in the minds of some is debatable: to what extent can Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or the Security Council get involved in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation state – even if the elections are found to be rigged or a defeated president refuses to concede victory?

Under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, the Security Council has the right to intervene if there is a threat to international peace and security.

But should the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire be deemed such a threat in the current order of things?

And can the United Nations send an interventionist military force – authorised by the Security Council – to put the rightful president in office?

Asked about the legitimacy of the secretary-general’s intervention, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told IPS: “It’s clear that we are acting in accordance with the mandate provided by the Security Council.”

The 15-member Security Council, the U.N.’s most powerful political body, has not only reiterated its support for “the constructive role of the secretary-general” but also condemned in “the strongest terms” the acts of violence against U.N. peacekeepers, numbering over 9,100, stationed in Cote d’Ivoire.

Addressing the 192-member General Assembly Tuesday, Ban warned that the situation in Cote d’Ivoire has “grown increasingly volatile”.

“There is a real risk of a return to civil war,” he told delegates, pointing out that the U.N. peacekeeping force, UNOCI, has confirmed that mercenaries, including freelance former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population.

Responding to charges that the United Nations was violating the country’s sovereignty, the secretary-general said: “This is wrong.”

“The United Nations has stood on the side of Africa against this attempt to overturn the democratic process and the will of the Ivorian people,” he said.

The international reaction is overwhelmingly against President Laurent Gbagbo, who was clearly defeated in the presidential elections last month.

The victorious candidate, Alassane Ouattara, a former senior U.N. official of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is being strongly backed by the United Nations and several regional bodies, including the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union (EU).

But the defeated president continues to cling onto power with the backing of the country’s military force numbering over 30,000.

Asked about the presence of mercenaries, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told reporters Monday: “If they are confirmed, it would be a source of grave concern, not only for the United States, but indeed, for the entire Security Council.”

The standoff between the international community and Gbagbo is fast turning out to be a rigid test of wills.

Over the weekend, the Security Council extended the mandate of UNOCI’s mission through Jun. 30 next year.

Last week, the situation escalated with armed attacks on U.N. peacekeepers who are providing security to president- elect Ouattara.

Ban said that forces loyal to Gbagbo are obstructing the movement of U.N. personnel and constricting U.N. operations in Cote d’Ivoire.

“This is a flagrant violation of Security Council resolutions and the U.N. mandate,” he added.

In the face of this “direct and unacceptable challenge” to the legitimacy of the United Nations, the world community cannot stand by, he declared.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.N. diplomat told IPS, “The United Nations is in Cote d’Ivoire to keep the peace and the Security Council has authorised a peacekeeping operation for this purpose.”

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) Choi Young-jin has been mandated to certify the outcome of the elections, he said. Thus far, the United Nations has done everything right.

“It may not please the incumbent but the U.N.’s position is backed up by the AU, ECOWAS and the U.N. Security Council,” the diplomat said.

With a deteriorating situation on the ground, there is the real risk of the U.N. being caught in the cross-fire between the opposing sides, he warned.

There are two issues here, he noted: first, any attack on the U.N. would be tantamount to an attack on the international community and will result in serious action against the perpetrators.

Secondly, “There is the fear that if the tensions are not defused, and the violence gets out of control, it could lead to mass killings and genocide, the very situation we want to avoid,” he added.

“The Security Council has to act. It is the organ responsible for maintaining international peace and security. It has to take decisive steps to end the violence and restore normalcy,” he declared.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has received two letters from president-elect Ouattara with respect to the credentials of the country’s delegation. One of the letters states that the credentials of Gbagbo’s ambassador have been withdrawn and a new permanent representative appointed by the president- elect.

A final decision will be taken by the U.N.’s Credentials Committee supported by legal opinion from the Department of Legal Affairs.

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