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PRESS CONFERENCE ON COTE D'IVOIRE

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

8 January 2004

Outlining the latest developments in the peace process in Côte d’Ivoire at a Headquarters press conference this morning, that country’s Permanent Representative, Philippe Djangone-Bi, told correspondents that the implementation of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement was yielding definite results.

While the implementation of the Agreement, signed by the Ivorian parties on 23 January 2003 on the initiative of the French Government, was slow, advances in the peace process had been very positive since last November, he said. The Ivorian conflict had started on 19 September 2002 as a coup d’état and since then an armed rebellion had occupied the northern half of the country, he added.

Comforted by “notable steps forward”, marked by the return of the former rebels into the Government of National Reconciliation after a boycott of more than three months, the President of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo had delivered a New Year’s address of hope to the nation, he said. In that address, he had reiterated his commitment to fully implementing the Agreement, as well as his decision to go to Bouake, the headquarters of the rebels, in January to make a solemn proclamation marking the end of the war. The two military staffs and the Prime Minister were working to prepare for that important and historic visit.

For some days now, he continued, the Government had adopted practically all of the reform bills recommended by the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. Among the 15 bills, according to article 235 of the Constitution, the one relating to the modification of article 35, on the conditions of eligibility, had to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament before being subjected to a referendum. That procedure was inscribed in the Constitution, which had been adopted in August 2000.

Regarding the bills on rural land tenure and nationality, the President had decided to subject those bills directly to a referendum, he said. In fact, article 43 of the Constitution stipulated that the President, after consultation with the National Assembly, could submit to a referendum any text or question which he considered to require direct consideration by the people.

The law on rural land tenure, he explained, had been adopted in 1998 by a unanimous vote of the National Assembly. The Parliamentarians had taken the precaution, before discussing the bill, of visiting all the regions of the country to hear the opinion of those most concerned. To amend the law without consulting -– by referendum -– the Ivorian people as a whole could result in frustration with “unforeseeable consequences”.

Regarding the nationality bill, due to its highly political nature through the automatic granting of voting rights, the President, by deciding to refer the matter to the people, intended to avoid any later recrimination if it were adopted, or rejected, by Parliament, he added. After all, the leaders of the former rebels had said that those two issues were the reasons for the war in the first place. Modifications, therefore, had to be made under clear, transparent and democratic conditions, without excluding any stakeholder.

The problem with the current Parliament was that it did not comprise certain components of Ivorian society, he said. The ex-rebels were not represented, nor was the Rassamblement des Républicains (RDR), or “Rally of Republicans” party, due to a boycott of the last legislative elections. The best way to clearly settle the matter was to refer the case to the people.

He said the country’s institutions were functioning normally in spite of the war. Recent developments were cause for optimism that the crisis would end quickly. It was important to take the time and find the means, with the assistance of the international community, to achieve a lasting peace.

He thanked the countries and organizations that were contributing to the restoration of peace, especially the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations and the Secretary-General, who had spared no effort to assist in restoring peace, not only to Côte d’Ivoire, but also to the entire subregion.

He hoped that the request of Côte d’Ivoire, and ECOWAS, to transform the United Nations Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (MINUCI) into a full-fledged peacekeeping operation financed by the United Nations would be satisfied.

Responding to a question on the timing of the President’s visit to Bouake and the referendum, he said the proclamation in Bouake would be made when the commissions were fulfilled. That was why the Prime Minister and the staff of the two armies were working together to create the necessary security and political conditions. The referendum would be carried out when the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process had started and weapons had been returned to their barracks. He hoped things would happen before 2005, which was the deadline for Presidential elections.

Had all the parties agreed that the referendum was the right way forward and was Côte d’Ivoire asking for international help in overseeing the referendum? a correspondent asked.

According to the Constitution, when there was a serious question and the President was given discretion to qualify the nature of that question, when the President deemed a question necessary, he first conferred with the bureau of the National Assembly. The Constitution had not been repealed by the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. On the contrary, the Agreement had acknowledged Côte d’Ivoire’s institutions.

Continuing, he said Côte d’Ivoire had organized many elections in the past and had always accepted the presence of observers. In this special case, a letter had been sent to the Secretary-General to request assistance in organizing the 2005 elections. For the referendum, the follow-up committee of the Security Council, with the help of MINUCI, would be there to ensure that things were done in a clear, democratic and transparent way.

Asked to describe the laws on rural land tenure and nationality, he said that, according to the 1998 rural land tenure law, which had been adopted by a unanimous vote, rural land tenure was reserved for nationals by birth or acquisition of nationality. Because of a decrease in rural land and the increase in the population, a dangerous ratio had developed. If one were not a national, one could rent -- but not own -- land for cultivation for a period of time.

Regarding the nationality law, he said that in 1960, when Côte d’Ivoire had become an independent and sovereign country, the Government had decided to offer Ivorian nationality to all those who were living there at that time, from 7 August 1960 to 1972. During that period, nationality could be requested and obtained. After the probation period of 12 years, those who had not asked to become Ivorians had not been given Ivorian nationality. Now, according to the suggestion of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement, those still living and the children of people living there since 1960 would be granted nationality.

At the end of last year, some element of the Forces Armées National de Côte d’Ivoire had requested French troops to leave the country, a correspondent said. What was the situation now concerning the General that had made the appeal? Also, was the President planning to visit Paris?

Responding, he said it was not the tradition for a General to meddle in political affairs. French troops were there under the request of the authorities of Côte d’Ivoire and would leave only when the Government of National Reconciliation asked them to leave. The Security Council had underlined bilateral agreements between them. The French were working side by side with the MINUCI and ECOWAS forces to secure peace and they were most welcome.

The President had indeed been invited to Paris, he continued. Côte d’Ivoire had strong links with France. It was not astonishing that President Chirac had invited President Gbagbo to visit France. While the visit had been planned for December, the President still had much to do with the implementation of the peace process. He hoped the President would be able to go to Paris after the proclamation of the end of the war in Bouake.

The referendum would require a great deal of organization and infrastructure if it were to be carried out before 2005, a correspondent noted. What steps were being taken to ensure that the referendum would gain the approval of the international community, particularly at a time when the rebels were very active and the voting process could be easily disrupted? Also, was Côte d’Ivoire seeking international help specifically for the referendum, and not for the Presidential elections in 2005?

Responding, he said there were three central elements in the reforms. For the reform of article 35, there would be a vote at the National Assembly, requiring a two-thirds majority, and then a referendum. That was stipulated in the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. A new referendum was not being proposed. The President was just adding two more elements. The referendum could be done in one or two days –- he was not certain. If there were not enough time, however, they would turn to the international community to find a solution.

He said that, even as he spoke, heavy weapons were being withdrawn from the front lines and light weapons were stored. The military staffs had started meeting yesterday to discuss the practical steps for demobilization. The peace process was in motion and he believed that they were not far from the end of the tunnel.

Was he saying that Côte d’Ivoire would not seek oversight of the international community in the holding of the referendum this year? a correspondent asked.

That was already acquired, he responded. For any election, Côte d’Ivoire would always request the participation of the international community. In this specific case, however, as Côte d’Ivoire was in a peace process, they had written a formal letter to the Secretary-General, to which he replied positively, that for the 2005 elections Côte d’Ivoire would have the assistance of the international community. He hoped to get the same assistance for the referendum, as it must be carried out in a clear and transparent way.

Asked what impact the referendum would have on the country’s cocoa output, he said that, while he could see a linkage between the conflict and the cocoa production, he could see no link between the referendum and the decrease in cocoa production. There had been a decrease in the official production of cocoa because of occupation of production areas and because trade routes had been interrupted in certain areas. As normal routes had been diverted to other countries, there had been a decrease in the official production. They were trying hard to reverse that course. With some 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa production, Côte d’Ivoire was the largest producer of cocoa. He was hopeful that things would return to normal as soon as the disarmament process was carried out on the ground.

Was there any relationship between cocoa production and the land tenure issue? a correspondent asked.

People continued to work on their land and take care of their cocoa plants, he said. Some people had fled from their farms, however. People would continue taking care of their crops, regardless of the referendum.

Regarding the call for a peacekeeping mission, what “appetite” did he detect in the governments of the Security Council to create a fully-fledged United Nations peacekeeping mission, and when might the Council adopt a resolution doing that? a correspondent asked.

While he did not know the Council’s schedule, he did know that the mission in Côte d’Ivoire was back, he said. He hoped the results would be positive, to the effect of creating a full-fledged peacekeeping mission.

Responding to a question on the decrease in cocoa production, he said that, based on recent information, cocoa production was down by some 20 per cent between 2002 and 2003. If conditions evolved positively, the trend could be easily reversed. The State was on its feet, institutions were functioning and civil servants were being paid.

Regarding the referendum, was the President’s decision to add two issues to the referendum made on the basis of an agreement with the other side to the conflict? a correspondent asked.

In the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement, many changes had to be carried out in the Constitution, he said. Article 35, on the conditions to be a candidate, was to be modified, as well as the land tenure and nationality laws. However, only article 35 was to go through a referendum after action by the National Assembly. Given the importance of the two other questions, however, the President had decided to add these two to the first referendum.

Was everyone on board as to how it would be done? the correspondent asked.

The Constitution was still valid, he said. The only thing the President had to do was to consult with the bureau of the National Assembly. The importance of the questions was obvious. If the National Assembly rejected the amendments, those not sitting on the Assembly -– such as the rebels and the RDR –- would say that they had not been considered. The only way to solve the issue was through a referendum. The President had to take responsibility, as he was in charge of preserving national unity and the Constitution itself.

Everything would be done with the assistance of the international community, through the Security Council, to hold transparent elections, he added.

Did the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement require that the two bills go through the Parliament and was the President modifying the procedure as outlined under the Agreement? a correspondent asked.

Responding, he said the Agreement did not specify a specific procedure. It proposed the changes to be carried out. For article 35, the Constitution indicated the procedure to follow. For the other two, it was through the Constitution that the President took authority to propose the referendum.

Asked if the Agreement proposed that the bills be approved by Parliament first before they were submitted to referendum, he said the Agreement did not provide guidance on the matter.

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