Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Outrageous Intolerable Incitement: the Ivory Coast and France, France and America

In an interview with France Inter radio last Sunday, French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie dismissed as “outrageous” reports that French troops had “decapitated” Ivorian protestors in Abidjan. “The outrageousness of the terms employed strips them of all credibility,” she said. “Such remarks consist of disinformation,” she added. More specifically, Mme. Alliot-Marie was responding to Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, who, while noting that he had not himself visited the Abidjan hospital where the headless corpses of protesters are supposed to have been held, said that on the basis of the testimony of “several persons” who had done so “one could consider the reports as true”. The original report of decapitations came from the Archbishop of Abidjan Bernard Agré, who, interviewed on the French-language service of Radio Vatican, said: “I’ve just come from the hospitals. It’s intolerable: these young people decapitated by the French Army, these bodies lying on the ground.” So if there is a campaign of disinformation, the Archbishop is apparently in on it and Radio Vatican has been one of its conduits. In her interview with France Inter, Mme. Alliot-Marie also noted that the “climate of hatred” toward the French in Ivory Coast was “extremely disturbing” and added that “the racist remarks, the xenophobic remarks that we have heard from Ivorian leaders are intolerable,” thus implying that the Ivorian leadership was conducting a campaign of incitement. (The charge that Ivorian media were employing “hate speech” to incite hostility to the French had already been made by French authorities to the UN bureaucracy, which dutifully adopted the charge as its own and issued a warning to the Ivorian authorities.) Calling on President Gbagbo to “take the measure of his responsibilities,” Mme. Alliot-Marie concluded that his remarks on the allegedly decapitated corpses belonged “in the register of the manipulation of the mobs in Abidjan in the absence of any free and independent press” – thus, in effect, personally accusing President Gbagbo of incitement. In this connection, it is worth noting that President Gbagbo’s remarks were made not on Ivorian airwaves, but rather in an Internet forum hosted by the prominent French news weekly Le Nouvel Observateur and in response to a question from a visitor who asked him directly what he thought of the Archbishop’s charge. According to the Nouvel Observateur’s website, nouvelobs.com, more than 2500 questions were posed to Mr. Gbagbo.

Now, of course, the charge that French troops decapitated Ivorian protestors is indeed highly implausible. Unlike in the case of certain Islamic forces, there is no notable French tradition of beheading prisoners of war, much less of engaging in decapitations in the field, such as are seemingly implied by the charges being leveled in connection with the Ivorian protestors. More to the point, why should the French troops have decapitated protestors? What would be the purpose of engaging in gratuitous hands-on savagery, when the “normal” use of deadly force at a relatively safe distance will do the job? The context for the beheading charges is a confrontation that took place on November 9 between Ivorian protestors and French troops having taken up heavily armed positions in front of the Hotel Ivoire, not far from Laurent Gbagbo’s Presidential residence. The French forces are accused of having fired into the crowd. Depending on sources, from 7 to 11 Ivorians are said to have been killed in the incident, with many more wounded. (The much higher number of upwards of 60 killed that is sometimes cited in this connection refers to the total number of Ivorians that the Ivorian government claims have been killed by French fire in various episodes since November 6.) Not only is this allegation in itself plausible, but a spokesperson for the French army admitted in an November 14 interview with the Swiss television channel TSR that it is true. Here is a link to the TSR interview (hat tip Seewen commenting on the Free Will Blog). Colonel Gérard Dubois justified these actions as “legitimate self-defense” in response to fire coming from pro-Gbagbo “Young Patriot” militia members allegedly using the crowd as cover. There is, moreover, video apparently depicting the incident (among other things) available on the Free Will Blog here. I should say that I have not myself watched the entire video. The parts I have seen are already sufficiently grisly and heart-rending. Aaron writing on the Free Will Blog notes that the footage does indeed include images of headless corpses. I will take his word for it. Given this footage and given the testimony of the Archbishop of Abidjan, who under ordinary circumstances would surely be considered a reliable witness in the matter, it would seem that there are, then, such corpses. I will not venture to speculate here on how they got that way.

The Hotel Ivoire incident has attracted much comment in the blogosphere. Probably the most extensive coverage and discussion are provided on Free Will (hat tip Instapundit). By contrast, the traditional mainstream media have largely ignored it. Bloggers have pointed out the hypocrisy. It does not require a very elaborate demonstration to be able to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if it were not the French, but rather the American military that was caught on videotape firing into a crowd of civilians, it would be all over the airwaves 24/7.

Whether it was “legitimate” for the French troops to have opened fire on the crowd, as the French Army spokesperson suggests, does not only depend on whether they had themselves come under fire from militants. It also depends on whether they had any business being in Abidjan in the first place and, more generally, on whether the increasingly aggressive action taken by the French forces in the Ivory Coast, including the November 6 destruction of much of the Ivorian air force, is compatible with their specific mandate under the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and with the basic principles of international law as laid out in the UN Charter. Depaul University law professor Jeremy Levitt, writing in the November 21 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, concludes that the French escalation of its military involvement on November 6 was illegal and, in effect, transformed erstwhile French peace-keeping forces into a party to war with the Ivory Coast.

Finally, let us suppose, for sake of argument, that President Gbagbo’s and Archbishop Agré’s remarks concerning the headless corpses are part of a campaign of incitement against the French. In any case, their seeming attribution of responsibility for beheadings to the deliberate actions of French forces appears entirely unfounded. Well, as I have discussed at length here, on October 6 the publicly-funded Franco-German television channel Arte ran a report in which American troops were repeatedly accused of having beheaded Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War: a report indeed that creates the impression that this must have been a relatively normal occurence. Is this not “outrageous”, “intolerable” incitement? Should not the French government and the German government “take the measure of their responsibilities” in the matter? Should not the UN Secretariat notify them that they should cease using public airwaves to disseminate such anti-American “hate speech”?