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U.N. Chief Urged to Protect Civilians
Letter to Kofi Annan
(New York, November 29, 2000)

Dear Mr. Secretary-General,

Human Rights Watch welcomes your decision to visit Sierra Leone on December 2-3. We hope that your visit will bring much-needed attention to the pressing issues that continue to obstruct peace and security, notably the ongoing human rights abuses against civilians and the pervasive climate of impunity. Human Rights Watch has maintained an office in Freetown since April 1999 and has documented these abuses extensively. We hope that your visit to Sierra Leone will result in a strengthened resolve to fully implement existing Security Council resolutions on these critical issues. Of particular importance is the need to proceed swiftly to establish the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Related Material

New Evidence of Atrocities in Sierra Leone
Human Rights Watch Press Release, November 30, 2000

List of recent abuses documented by Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch Research

Sierra Leone: A Call for Justice
Human Rights Watch Photoessay 2000

Your last visit to Sierra Leone came the day after the signing of the July 7, l999 Lome Peace Accord, when hopes for an end to the brutal eight-year war were high. A year and a half later, war crimes and crimes against humanity continue to be committed against Sierra Leonean civilians and little progress has been made on respect for human rights and the establishment of the rule of law. Serious human rights abuses have been perpetrated primarily but not exclusively by rebel forces, and these abuses have intensified since the May collapse of the peace process. This has included a disturbing increase in violations by pro-government forces, primarily the civil defense militia, and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) atrocities against the civilians in neighboring Guinea. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses including mutilation, abduction, rape, summary executions and other acts of murder, and lawlessness by all sides (a list of recent abuses documented by Human Rights Watch is attached).

Given that the conflict in Sierra Leone has been characterized by systematic atrocities against civilians, we urge you use your visit to focus new attention on the need for UNAMSIL to protect civilians. Specifically, we urge you to publicly reaffirm UNAMSIL's obligation under its current mandate to protect civilians and to ensure that this be established as an immediate and primary concern of troops on the ground. UNAMSIL should be required to take all necessary measures to protect civilians within its areas of deployment, and to use its best efforts to expand the zone within which it is able to protect civilians.

We believe that UNAMSIL's efforts to promote protection for civilians would be greatly improved if the work of the human rights unit were better integrated into the larger UNAMSIL mission. In this regard, we urge you to ensure that the human rights unit be strengthened with the necessary mandate and resources to enable it to investigate and publicly report on human rights abuses by all sides to the conflict, and that its findings and recommendations be given due weight by UNAMSIL's military and political components.

The establishment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone remains an urgent priority, which should be highlighted during your visit. As your seventh report on UNAMSIL (October 31, 2000) indicated, the Special Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission "could contribute to ending impunity and developing respect for the rule of law, and bring closure to victims of human rights abuses." However, progress toward establishing the court has been extremely slow, and your direct engagement is needed to finalize a new statute and proceed toward establishing the court. In order for the court to be as effective as possible, it is essential that the court be given Chapter VII powers to enforce cooperation at every stage, including the production of witness testimony or other evidence, the service of warrants, and the search, arrest, and surrender of suspects to the Special Court. We also urge that the court's temporal jurisdiction be extended back to the start of the war in March 1991, rather than be limited to the currently envisioned November 30, 1996 cutoff date. A truncated scope of temporal jurisdiction may impose grave evidentiary hurdles to any prosecutor attempting to show the responsibility of those in command. For example, Foday Sankoh, the RUF leader, was himself at liberty for only three months between November 1996 and the signing of the Lome accord in July 1999. It would be enormously detrimental to the effort to end impunity in Sierra Leone if Sankoh were only tried for his abuses against U.N. peacekeepers, and not for his crimes against the Sierra Leonean people. We urge you to publicly reaffirm that there can be no impunity for perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity by any side to this conflict.

The regionalization of the conflict in Sierra Leone is a cause of great concern, highlighted by the ongoing arms flows into the country, reports of RUF troop movements toward the Guinean border, and the recent attacks against refugees in Guinea. A key issue that we urge you to address is the reports of repeated and blatant violations of the U.N. arms embargo against the RUF. UNAMSIL must be capable of responding to these reports, which would require the deployment of well-equipped U.N. forces to monitor borders (especially with Liberia), roads and airstrips bordering on rebel areas. We further call on you to use your visit to remind neighboring states of their international obligation not to return any refugees to a country where their lives may be threatened.

On November 10, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) brokered a 30-day cease-fire between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front. Although the RUF commits itself to the immediate return of all weapons, ammunition and other equipment seized by them, we are very concerned about the lack of commitment by the RUF to release all civilian abductees and for both warring sides to respect human rights. While the terms of the agreement explicitly define any attack against UNAMSIL personnel and equipment as a violation of the cease-fire, there is no such mention with regard to attacks against the civilian population. This cease-fire agreement thus misses a critical component of the conflict in Sierra Leone, and should not be used as a rationale for not moving forward with other pressing issues. Furthermore, any future attempts at the extension of the cease-fire must include the missing elements mentioned above.

For the UN mission in Sierra Leone to become a model for future UN operations, it must more effectively integrate at all levels a commitment to international human rights and humanitarian law. This includes strengthening UNAMSIL's human rights unit, but also involves more effective training in international humanitarian and human rights law for all international troops, an essential precondition to their deployment in such a difficult environment. Humanitarian law advisers should be deployed with the troops in order to ensure the highest possible protection for the civilian population. In some past U.N. operations around the world, U.N. peacekeepers have themselves been responsible for human rights violations, and after some highly embarrassing media reports, the Secretariat pledged to create institutional mechanisms to address such situations. To our knowledge, however, no meaningful measures have been implemented. The U.N. mission in Sierra Leone would set an important precedent by creating a mechanism for prompt investigations of alleged human rights violations committed by peacekeeping troops. Such investigations should be conducted by the civilian human rights unit, and their results should be acted upon as a matter of highest priority by the operation's leadership.

The continuation of widespread human rights abuses in Sierra Leone is an affront to international law, and undermines the prospects for peace and reconciliation that Sierra Leoneans so desperately seek. We hope that your visit will signal a new commitment to ending human rights abuses in that conflict. Our staff stands ready to assist you and members of your delegation with further information.

Wishing you a productive trip,


Janet Fleischman
Washington Director for the Africa Division of
Human Rights Watch
Joanna Weschler
U.N. Representative
Human Rights Watch