Dear President Mbeki: The United Nations Helped Save the Ivory Coast

By sticking to internationally recognized principles, the U.N. was able to restore the rule of law in the embattled West African state.

President Thabo Mbeki has presented an inaccurate account of recent events in the Ivory Coast, and his defence of former President Laurent Gbagbo's attempt to thwart the will of the Ivorian people is surprising.

When Mr. Gbagbo's mandate expired in 2005, Ivorians, African leaders, and the international community invested five years in finding a political solution. Through the Pretoria Agreement, signed in 2005 under President Mbeki's auspices, and the Ouagadougou Political Agreement (2007), the Ivorian parties assumed full ownership of the peace process. It was they who dictated the pace, timelines, and solutions to any obstacles.

Ivory Coast's 2010 president election had been postponed several times owing to inadequate progress toward disarmament and reunification. Last August, however, Mr. Gbagbo, acting without any external pressure, signed a decree setting Oct. 31, 2010, as the date for the first round of the vote. This step was endorsed by all relevant actors, who recognized that any further delay could itself have caused violence.

The first round was a milestone. Mr. Gbagbo, who emerged as the leading candidate, expressed his appreciation to the special representative of the U.N. secretary general for his role in certifying the election results.

The second round was held on Nov. 28, and the U.N Special Representative Choi Young-Jin followed the same agreed-upon certification procedure he had used for the first round. His analysis agreed with the Independent Electoral Commission, which declared Alassane Ouattara the winner.

The special representative also determined that the results proclaimed by the Constitutional Council, which gave "victory" to Mr. Gbagbo, were not based on facts, and that the council had arbitrarily nullified results from the north, thereby disenfranchising a large portion of the population. The special representative also indicated that, even if Mr. Gbagbo's complaints had been found valid, Ouattara would still be the winner. ECOWAS and the African Union (AU), the chief regional organizations of West Africa, supported the certification by the special representative and endorsed the results announced by the Electoral Commission.

The legal basis for the U.N. certification mandate is derived from the Pretoria Agreement and subsequent Declaration on the Implementation of the Pretoria Agreement. Ivorians themselves were keenly aware that elections were likely to take place in an environment of mistrust and lack of confidence in the relevant institutions, and so turned to the United Nations as an impartial presence. The United Nations is proud to have fulfilled its role in accordance with the relevant international agreements.  

In the course of the crisis, some called for a recount. Yet the idea behind a recount was to pave the way for a "negotiated political solution" that would have led to a power-sharing arrangement, a solution that President Mbeki seemed to favor -- but which would have set a dangerous precedent for the continent and undermined the principles of democracy.  There should be zero tolerance for desperate acts by rulers seeking to stay in power against the will of the people.

The post-election violence was a direct result of Mr. Gbagbo's refusal to accept defeat and his repeated rejection of all efforts to find a peaceful solution. Security forces loyal to him used heavy weapons against civilians in communities perceived as strongholds of President Ouattara, against U.N. peacekeepers, and against supporters of Ouattara at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, which was during the crisis the temporary seat of the legitimate government.

Acting with the unanimous support of the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. Operation in Cote D'Ivoire (UNOCI) undertook limited military operations, strictly within the bounds of its mandate, to protect civilians. It did not, at any stage, seek to stop or facilitate military gains by any side. Throughout the crisis, UNOCI has undertaken every effort to implement its mandate in an impartial manner and protect civilians irrespective of their political affiliation. Just as the mission provided security at the Golf Hotel, so it is currently providing security to Mr. Gbagbo and more than 50 officials of his Front populaire ivoirien (FPI).

The impartiality of the United Nations does not mean neutrality. Its peacekeepers had a responsibility to act in the face of possible grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. President Mbeki claims that the crisis confirms the marginalization of the African Union. In fact, the AU refused to allow itself to be used as a vehicle for an unconstitutional grab for power, thereby heightening its legitimacy.

The ultimate vindication of the principled position taken by ECOWAS, the AU, and the United Nations came from the Ivorian Constitutional Council itself. On May 5, President Yao N'Dre set aside the fabricated results announced five months earlier, proclaimed President Ouattara the legitimate winner, and swore him into office the next day.

Elections, on their own, will never be a panacea for the root causes of conflict. National reconciliation in the Ivory Coast will not be easy, but the country is on the right track toward reclaiming its role as the pillar of stability in the sub-region. African leaders who wish to play a constructive role may begin by offering support to that country as it moves forward rather than trying to reorder facts or rewrite history.



Moral Revolutions

The pursuit of truth and goodness is more complicated than it seems -- especially in Russia.

Leon Aron has written a fascinating and instructive essay on the collapse of the Soviet Union ("Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong," July/August 2011). His insistence on taking seriously both the moral aspirations of those who drove events and the desire for human dignity of ordinary people has implications for our understanding of revolutionary events in general. As political theorist Kenneth Minogue once observed, there have been few more potent motivating factors in history than humiliation and the desire to overcome it.

Yet much as I learned from Aron's essay, I wonder whether he is not subsuming too much under what he calls "the magnificent moral impulse, the search for truth and goodness." In modern history, and particularly in the history of revolutionary regimes, there are hugely consequential distinctions to be made between three very different phenomena: first, the sort of moral impulse that Aron salutes in Mikhail Gorbachev and the leading dissidents; second, an intolerant and fanatical moralism; and third, the desire to overcome humiliation. The interplay between the three is complex and often has paradoxical effects.

Thus it is worth pointing out that there have been few more ostentatiously moralistic figures in modern history than the Jacobins of the French Revolution or, for that matter, the early Bolsheviks. Lenin and his followers claimed to be acting on very much the same sort of moral impulses that Aron attributes to Gorbachev, and though we may write Lenin off as a cynical manipulator, we can hardly say the same for everyone who followed him. How do we distinguish the "moral impulses" we approve of from those we don't? If we want to attribute historical agency to them, we cannot avoid the question.

And, of course, the desire for human dignity and overcoming humiliation does not always line up very well with "the search for truth and goodness." Sometimes it is satisfied better by revenge, victory, or prosperity. It is worth noting that it was precisely the most immoral regime in Russian history -- Stalin's -- that probably did the most to assuage the humiliation and thereby affirm the dignity of the Soviet people. It did so by winning the "Great Patriotic War" against the Nazis. The Stalinist regime, with its vast and terrible immorality, was probably far more popular, in the years after that war, than its successor of the early 1980s, with its far more petty and limited immorality. (And did not the sense of being unable to compete with Ronald Reagan's America contribute to the sense of humiliation that helped drive perestroika and glasnost?) So, again, the "moral impulse" in history does not always work in one direction.

And for this reason, alas, I cannot share Aron's optimism about Vladimir Putin's regime being overcome by the same forces that brought the Soviet Union to an end. For all the injustices it perpetrates, is Russia today really prey to the same powerful senses of privation, humiliation, and frustration that afflicted Gorbachev in 1985?

David A. Bell
Professor of History
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Leon Aron replies:

I am grateful to David Bell for his thoughtful note. Of course Jacobins and Bolsheviks most spectacularly harnessed the moral revulsion I identify among the key causes of revolutions. My ambition was to point out a neglected causal link to radical change and not to endorse all the actions of the leaders and national political cultures that powerfully shape it, and often bend them toward murderous violence. Whether we approve of what happened afterward is important for us but irrelevant to the causality I am seeking to establish.

I never stated that truth and goodness were the only motives or that they did not (or could not) coexist. World War II is a perfect example, but it needs to be put back on its feet from the head on which Bell has stood it. It was an overwhelming moral rejection of Nazi slavery by millions of "simple Russians" that saved the regime, not the other way around. We know from dozens of unimpeachable witnesses -- Soviet journalists and writers, all of whom were soldiers or front-line reporters in the Great Patriotic War -- that millions who fought were moved by a profoundly moral urge for dignity in citizenship and freedom, choosing to die for their country and the people, and thus dying free. As to whether Stalinism was "popular," how does one know what terrorized people think?

And, yes, the immorality of Leonid Brezhnev's regime was not on the Stalinist scale, but it was more acutely felt, to paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville -- just as the indignities of Louis XVI were suddenly more intolerable than those of the far more objectively offensive and oppressive Louis XIV. Egypt under Hosni Mubarak was far more prosperous and less morally offensive than under Gamal Abdel Nasser -- just as Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma, Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze, and Kyrgyzstan under Askar Akayev were far less immoral than under their Soviet predecessors. Yet all had "color revolutions" remarkable in the commonality of their unmistakably moral causes.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

STURGIS52: The demise of the Soviet Union cannot be understood without giving proper credit to Gorbachev. If a leader of the ilk and attitude of Brezhnev had been in power throughout the '80s and '90s, the demise of the USSR would not have come as rapidly, or as peaceably.

FORLORNEHOPE: Every Russian reform movement, from Ivan the Terrible through Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Lenin, Stalin, and Gorbachev, has been imposed from the top. The moment the leader has died, been removed, or lost their drive it stops. What has changed?