CÔTE D'IVOIRE: Sanctions: Politically driven, humanly felt
Karin Palmquist

US State Department estimates put them at over one and a half million: people living with HIV/AIDS in Côte d'Ivoire -- a human catastrophe ravaging an already grief-stricken country. These are people desperately in need of care and medication. Through his Initiative on HIV/AIDS, President George W. Bush has allocated $15 billion to combating HIV/AIDS in Africa. Yet none of this money will reach the aid efforts coordinated by the Ivorian government.

The reason: sanctions imposed by the US government to punish the country's government for a 1999 coup d'etat and the allegedly flawed elections of 2000.

But do economic sanctions really reach their intended targets? Can economic punishment change political discourse?

Few people would be able to name, offhand, historical examples that support the case for sanctions, yet roughly half of the world's population lives in countries subject to some form of sanctions, be it by organizations like the UN, the EU, or individual countries like the United States. Sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime did not bring him down, but his people felt their effects for 13 long years. More often than not, sanctions are ignored by governments, with disastrous results for ordinary people and small businesses.

Sometimes sanctions have the complete opposite effect, fattening the wallets of the leaders of the regimes they are supposed to bring down, as embargos create a smugglers' paradise for whoever controls the border.

South Africa is one of the few cases where sanctions actually worked. The trade embargo imposed on the country by the United Nations between 1987 and 1993 is often said to have contributed to the fall of the Apartheid regime. Nevertheless, sanctions alone rarely work. As in South Africa, they need to be paired with popular discontent and promoted by a popular native leader.

And how about situations when countries believe sanctions were imposed in error? This is what Côte d'Ivoire's ambassador to the United States, Pascal D. Kokora, believes happened with his country.

Section 508 sanctions were first imposed on Côte d'Ivoire in 1999, in response to a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected leader. In October 2000 Côte d'Ivoire held elections that were deemed fair by international observers, but the US State Department said the elections were flawed because not all the candidates were allowed to run. It refused to lift the sanctions, and has kept them in place until now.  

The political stability in Côte d'Ivoire deteriorated following the death of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993, after a 30-year rule. In their quest for power, rival factions began exploiting religious and ethnic differences among the Ivorians. In the late 1990s, these differences escalated into a bloody conflict between rebel groups in the Muslim-dominated north, and the government-controlled south, with its largely Christian and animist population. 

In a July 2000 referendum, the Ivorian people approved a new constitution and electoral code, by an 86 percent majority. The revised constitution tightened presidential eligibility requirements, including a stipulation that a candidate's parents both have to be Ivorian and that the candidate must never have held another nationality.

This prevented the leader of the mainly Muslim party Rally of Republicans (RDR), Alassane Dramane Ouattara, once a national of Burkina Faso, from the presidential race.  Ouattara himself supported the new constitution, but his ineligibility to run led the rebels to claim that the elections had not adequately represented the interests of the 40 percent Muslim population, and to call for a transition government leading up to a new round of elections.

In practical terms, the sanctions mean that the government of Côte d'Ivoire can't receive US aid. It can't receive grants from for example the US Department of Defense to reform its military. Aid organizations -- Ivorian, American or international -- can receive grants for the work they're doing in Côte d'Ivoire, but with no government coordination NGOs working independently of each other don't work as effectively and sometimes at cross-purposes. The president of the United States can remove the sanctions once a democratically elected government has been installed. Alternatively, he can remove the sanctions if it is in the foreign policy interests of the United States.

"Sometime the sanctions prevent cooperation in areas of mutual interests, such as fighting terrorism by providing assistance to monitor and control financial flows, increasing border and air travel security and pursuing military cooperation," Ambassador Kokora says.

"The Ivorian and American governments must assume their responsibilities. The HIV problem can't be left for the NGOs to solve. These sanctions are just a matter of politics, not legislation. The sanctions should be lifted immediately. We had democratic elections," the ambassador continues.

The wars in Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire are officially over and the economies of Western Africa are pulling together the pieces of what is left. Côte d'Ivoire finds itself competing with neighbors like Ghana on unequal terms. "We have trouble attracting investors. They don't know what we have to offer. If the sanctions were lifted, there would be less apprehension and fear," Ambassador Kokora says.

One might have different opinions about the constitutional basis on which the Ivorian Supreme Court based its decisions to disqualify some of the presidential candidates, but shouldn't the objective at hand be how to best help Côte d'Ivoire's one and a half million HIV-infected people? For the people living with HIV/AIDS in Côte d'Ivoire the answer is obvious.

Biography of Ambassador Pascal D. Kokora:

Ambassador Pascal D. Kokora is one of the five founding members of the political organization Front Populaire Ivorien (FPI), along with the president of Côte d'Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo. He is also the founder of an Ivorian human rights advocacy group.

In 1988 Ambassador Kokora was fired from his position as associate professor of linguistics at the National University of Côte d'Ivoire by a presidential decree and three years later he came to Washington as FPIs representative. The following year, in 1992, a group of Ivorian opposition headed by Laurent Gbagbo, along with some human rights activists and leaders of teachers' unions, were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for having organized and participated in a demonstration against human rights abuses. Ambassador Kokora lobbied the US congress and got a letter of support for the political prisoners endorsed by six US senators and seven representatives. The letter in turn led to the prompt release of the prisoners.

Ambassador Kokora returned to his teaching career in 1993 as a professor at Georgetown University, where he stayed until 1999. Pascal Kokora was appointed Ambassador of Côte d'Ivoire in November of 2001.