A senior United Nations official warned incumbent Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and other senior officials on Friday they may be held criminally accountable for human rights violations.
A dispute between Gbagbo and rival candidate Alassane Ouattara over who won the presidential election on Nov. 28 has plunged the West African state into turmoil and U.N. experts have reported killings, disappearances and arbitrary detentions.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said on Friday she had written to Gbagbo and other senior officials "to remind them ... that they will be held personally responsible and accountable for human rights violations resulting from their actions and/or omissions, according to international human rights and humanitarian law."
The international criminal justice system developed in the past 15 or so years had provided a means of accountability that did not exist before, she said in a statement issued in Geneva.
"No longer can heads of state, and other actors, be sure that they can commit atrocious violations and get away with it."
A Gbagbo spokesman said he could not immediately comment.
Gbagbo has defied almost unanimous pressure from world leaders to had over power to Ouattara, widely recognised to have won the election. Gbagbo's camp has rejected U.N.-certified electoral commission results that declared Ouattara winner, sparking a standoff in which scores of people have been killed.
In a New Year address broadcast on television late on Friday, Gbagbo accused world powers of an "attempted coup d'etat" by backing his rival.
"I will stay where Ivorians have placed me with their votes. We will not concede," he said.
Missed international debt payment
"When committed in certain circumstances, enforced disappearances amount to a crime against humanity," a U.N. working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances said of attacks by gunmen on pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods.
As uncertainty grew over which of the rival governments set up by the two claimants was in charge of state accounts, Ivory Coast appeared likely to have missed an international debt payment due on Friday.
Ouattara's government said the cash had run out and Gbagbo's offered no guarantees.
Gbagbo's newly hired French lawyer Roland Dumas, a socialist politician, former foreign minister and ex-head of France's Constitutional Council, told journalists said they would "re-establish the truth about the elections".
The Constitutional Council, run by an ally of Gbagbo, reversed Ouattara's victory by cancelling hundreds of thousands of votes in Ouattara strongholds, alleging fraud. The U.N. mission chief has rejected this as "not based on facts".
"We have a president-elect named by the Constitutional Council, which is an institution that respects the law," Dumas told journalists at the Council, after meeting officials there.
"Everything that was done, was done before the law."
Addressing journalists in the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara's officials are holed up under the guard of U.N. peacekeepers, his Prime Minister Guillaume Soro called for swift international action to remove Gbagbo by force.
"Ivory Coast is already in a state of civil war," he said.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to use force to oust Gbagbo if he does not leave quietly. Rebels still running the north of Ivory Coast since the civil war in 2002 and 2003 have said they would join any intervention.
Asked earlier on Friday if he would leave power in the event of an ECOWAS operation to oust him, Gbagbo told Euronews television: "I will see, I'll think it over. But for the moment it's not an issue. What's an issue now is discussion, so we are discussing."
Britain said on Friday it would support a U.N. move to use force against Gbagbo and it said it no longer recognised his ambassador in London Philippe Djangone-Bi, in line with U.N. General Assembly policy.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Friday it had registered 18,000 Ivorian refugees so far in Liberia, but there were probably more. Just over half were women and two-thirds of the total were under 18.
"The influx is straining the local community which is helping them. We need to have a site, a camp," UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told Reuters.
The West African regional central bank last week cut Gbagbo off from Ivorian accounts, raising questions about whether he would be able to keep paying the soldiers and civil servants who back him, let alone meet Friday's $30 million payment on a $2.3 billion Eurobond issued this year.
At 2000 GMT, when European and U.S. markets were largely shut, an official in Gbagbo's Finance Ministry said it was still not clear if the payment had gone through. "We don't know if it was made or not," he said.
The prospect of instability in Ivory Coast has propelled cocoa prices to four-month highs.