July 12, 2002
There is still much that stands between Sierra Leone’s painful past and a future based on respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division

(New York) - The new government of Sierra Leone must act decisively to address the issues that gave rise to the bloody decade-long war, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who will tomorrow preside over the formal opening of the newly elected parliament, must set as top priorities steps to establish the rule of law and seek accountability for past abuses. Failure to do so will undermine efforts to establish lasting peace and stability.

“There is still much that stands between Sierra Leone’s painful past and a future based on respect for human rights and the rule of law,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “Justice must be done for past abuses, the judicial system must begin to function, rampant corruption must be eliminated, and the army and police must begin to truly protect and defend the people of Sierra Leone.”

The deployment in Sierra Leone of the UN’s largest international peacekeeping force brought an end to what was one of Africa’s most brutal wars, the disarmament of over 47,000 combatants, the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians, and recent peaceful elections.

But the deeply rooted issues that gave rise to the war — a culture of impunity, widespread corruption, weak rule of law, and the inequitable distribution of the country’s vast natural resources — remain largely unaddressed.

Human Rights Watch underscored the importance of two new institutions established with international assistance, the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Special Court is charged with bringing to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and certain violations of Sierra Leone law — but has funding only sufficient to try a handful of the many hundreds of people who might be charged. The TRC will seek to establish an impartial historical record of the conflict and promote reconciliation.

Human Rights Watch called on both the Special Court and the TRC to resist any attempts to manipulate their investigations and conclusions. To be credible and effective both institutions must objectively investigate members of all warring factions in Sierra Leone's war.

The TRC is experiencing serious funding shortfalls. Human Rights Watch urged the international and donor community to ensure that it is fully funded, in particular to enable the TRC to address those issues that the Special Court will not be able to. TRC commissioners should investigate and expose collusion between the national army and rebel forces, as well as the involvement of regional players who provided logistical, financial and military support to rebel groups.

The Sierra Leone Army and Sierra Leone Police have over the years been the source of considerable instability, corruption, and human rights violations. “Soldiers and police have enjoyed near complete immunity for all sorts of violations. The impunity must end,” said Takirambudde. The British-led efforts to rehabilitate the beleaguered Sierra Leone army and police and rebuild the judicial system have made a significant impact, and other donors should follow suit.

The new government, together with the international community, must sincerely and without delay confront the problem of corruption, which is endemic within both the public and private sectors. Key indicators of social well being in Sierra Leone, including infant and maternal mortality, illiteracy, and life expectancy have been among the world’s worst for years. Addressing corruption head-on will be an indispensable part of confronting these problems, thereby promoting economic and social rights.

Human Rights Watch also warned that sustainable peace in Sierra Leone is dependent upon stability within the countries of the wider region, namely Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The recent renewal of war in Liberia has already drawn in hundreds of former fighters from Sierra Leone who has crossed into Liberia to fight as mercenaries either for the Liberian government or rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). As a result of the growing number of Liberian refugees and combatants crossing into Sierra Leone, the border area threatens to become unstable.