Since losing political power in February 1998, members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have been engaging in a war of terror against civilians in Sierra Leone. With no recognizable political platform, the AFRC/RUF rebel alliance is committing widespread and egregious atrocities against unarmed civilians in an attempt to regain power. As the violence in Sierra Leone continues, grave abuses continue to take place. Human Rights Watch interviewed civilian men, women, and children who had been intentionally mutilated or shot as recently as June 12, 1998 in eastern Sierra Leone.
Many thousands of Sierra Leonean civilians have been raped; deliberately mutilated, often by amputation; or killed outright in a campaign by the AFRC/RUF between February and June 1998 alone. Men, women and children, probably numbering in the thousands, have been abducted by the AFRC/RUF for use as combatants, forced laborers, or sexual slaves. Women have been actively targeted through sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery. Children have been targets of killings and violence and are forcibly recruited as soldiers. In addition to various forms of physical abuse, innumerable Sierra Leoneans suffer from psychological trauma due to intentionally cruel methods of inflicting harm against these individuals and their communities.
These atrocities committed against civilians are the latest cycle of violence in the armed conflict that has devastated Sierra Leone for seven years. The fighting has caused the displacement of more than a million Sierra Leoneans. Most have become internally displaced, while hundreds of thousands have fled the country as refugees, predominantly to neighboring Guinea and Liberia.
The AFRCled by a group of military officerstook power forcibly on May 25, 1997. During the nine months it was in power, the AFRC joined forces with the armed rebel group, the RUF, to form a regime characterized by serious human rights violations and a complete breakdown of the rule of law. In February 1998, a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), forced the AFRC/RUF out of power and reinstated former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who had been elected president in March 1996 in the first multi-party elections for almost three decades in Sierra Leone. Since the reinstatement of Kabbah, the AFRC has joined forces with the RUF to wage a war against ECOMOG and the Kabbah government.
Since independence in 1961, Sierra Leone has endured a series of military regimes and rebellions in struggles over economic and political power. However, the latest round of violence is unique in the scale and grotesque nature of the attacks on civilians. Much of rural Sierra Leone is inaccessible due to the ongoing war, and information is available for the most part only through health facilities where victims seek care in Sierra Leone and through the testimonies of witnesses and survivors in neighboring Guinea and Liberia. Of the hundreds of testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch, many described situations in which the interviewee was the sole survivor among many victims. The cases reported in this document represent only a small fraction of the actual number of victims. The true number may never be known.
Human Rights Watch compiled information regarding the experiences of more than 500 survivors of atrocities committed in Sierra Leone between February and June of 1998. The vast majority of these abuses were perpetrated by members of the AFRC/RUF. Of this number, over 425 survivors of gunshot wounds, amputations and other mutilations, or rape were registered in Connaught, Magburaka, and Makeni hospitals in Sierra Leone. Approximately eighty-two survivors of the same types of abuse were identified in Guinea at Conakry, Faranah, Kissidougou, and Guéckedou hospitals during roughly the same period. In the Liberian refugee camps, Human Rights Watch interviewed victims of the conflict and former AFRC/RUF combatants living alongside one another.
Forces fighting on behalf of President Kabbah have also committed human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. Civilian Defense Forces (CDFs), civilian militias who support the Kabbah government, have committed numerous abuses including indiscriminate killings and torture. These killings are ona smaller scale than those carried out by the AFRC/RUF and are of a different nature: the CDFs were created in order to assure local security, and they generally limit their abuses to those they claim are AFRC/RUF combatants and to a lesser extent, those perceived as their supporters. The largest and most powerful of the CDFs, the Kamajors, have been responsible for the majority of abuses committed by those fighting on behalf of the Kabbah government since February 1998. In addition to killings and torture, Kamajors have also been responsible for obstructing humanitarian assistance and demanding money or other payment at roadblocks. There are many child soldiers among the Kamajors, and despite promises by the government to demobilize all combatants under the age of eighteen, recent reports indicate that the CDFs continue to recruit children.
According to international humanitarian groups, the shelling by ECOMOG during its assault on Freetown in early February 1998 took a high toll on civilians. ECOMOG forces have also obstructed humanitarian assistance by commandeering vehicles from aid agencies. Information from ECOMOG regarding the security situation in Sierra Leone has often been unduly positive, leading to the repatriation of refugees to unsafe areas. ECOMOG has been widely praised for ousting the AFRC/RUF and conducting itself with greater discipline than was the case in Liberia. However, international observers in Sierra Leone have expressed concerns that some members of ECOMOG may seek to prolong its mission in order to exploit the conflict for economic incentives, as was the case involving some ECOMOG contingents in Liberia.
The atrocities that drive civilians into flight are only the first chapter of hardship for many Sierra Leoneans affected by the crisis. Approximately one-quarter million Sierra Leoneans have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Guinea and Liberia to escape the abuses and fighting. The location of the camps in border areas presents problems of security for and access to the camps, which in turn have impaired assistance and protection for refugees. Security conditions in many of the camps are precarious, and humanitarian assistance has been hampered by difficult access to the camps, a lack of resources at the disposition of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and aid agencies, and in some instances, poor coordination of relief efforts.
Protecting refugees in this context remains a challenge for UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. In the Guinean camps, many unaccompanied women, children, and other war victims suffer from inadequate protection. Delays in the distribution of identity cards for refugees have led to restricted movement for refugees, as well as extortion and arbitrary arrest by Guinean authorities. Despite repeated requests from UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Guinean authorities have denied access to detained asylum seekers they are holding as suspected combatants.
In the Liberian camps, the presence of former combatants among the refugee population has hampered humanitarian assistance and protection. The proximity of the camps to the fighting in Sierra Leone and the permeable nature of the Sierra Leonean-Liberian border present a clear security risk for refugees and for the delivery of aid to the Vahun camp, located eight to twelve kilometers from the border. Former combatants in the camps stated that the AFRC/RUF are taking advantage of the porous border situation to resupply and to recruit combatants. Assistance and protection has been further compromised by difficult access to the camps, the onset of the rainy season and poor road conditions, a lack of resources for UNHCR and aid groups, and an insufficiently rapid and well-coordinated effort to relocate refugees and separate combatants. The generally weak assistance and protection provided to the Vahun camp has increased tension and the risk of insecurity in the camp and its environs. By June 1998, most refugees in Vahun had received only one fourteen-day ration since their arrival in February and March.
Sierra Leone has been largely ignored by much of the international community, with the exception of those attempting to exploit its rich diamond and mineral deposits. This mix of exploitation and indifference, combined with a history of weak respect for the rule of law and democratic institutions, has repeatedly permitted military leaders to hold power and divert revenue from the mines for their own benefit. In attempts during recent years to gain political and economic control, both government and rebel groups have sought to tip the balance of power by employing private security firms or mercenaries, often in exchange for lucrative contracts and mining concessions.
A major challenge to the new Kabbah government will be to promote respect for the rule of law and the establishment of institutions of justice in the midst of the present public outcry for revenge and threats against those who defend the human rights of the accused. While demanding accountability for crimes committed by all sides, the Kabbah government must assure due process for the accused, especially the fifty-nine civilians currently being prosecuted for collaboration with the AFRC/RUF. These trials constitute the first major test of the justice system under Kabbah. The government has made repeated gestures in favor of human rights, such as its pledge to provide amnesty for child soldiers and to demobilize all child soldiers; it must now follow through on these commitments. In conjunction with ECOMOG, the government must also assure that the CDFs respect international humanitarian law, are demobilized as soon as possible or integrated into the new army, and are held accountable for their abuses.
In order to end the cycles of violence in Sierra Leone, perpetrators of human rights violations must be held accountable for their actions. AFRC/RUF members suspected of having committed human rights abuses and former AFRC/RUF collaborators must be given fair trials and punished according to national and international law.
Although influencing the actions of the AFRC/RUF has proven to be difficult, international pressure must be maintained to convince them to immediately cease indiscriminate killings, rape, and mutilation of civilians, the abduction of civilians, especially children, for use as soldiers, laborers, sexual slaves or other purposes, and other violations of the laws of war.
The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union have condemned violations by the AFRC/RUF, undertaken high-level assessment missions, and provided humanitarian aid. Despite the blatant disregard of the AFRC/RUF for international humanitarian and human rights law, the U.S., U.K. and E.U. should continue to denounce the atrocities and seek means to stop them. This should include cutting the supply lines of the AFRC/RUF and stating unequivocally that no group or individual associated with these abuses will receive any international support. The international community should call upon the government of Liberian President Charles Taylor to immediately allow ECOMOG in Liberia to monitor the border area with Sierra Leone. This operation should be reinforced by simultaneous monitoring on the Sierra Leonean side of the border by ECOMOG and the United Nations Observer Mission to Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL). President Taylor should also be called upon to prevent the use of Liberian territory for any support to the AFRC/RUF.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should assure that human rights concerns are integrated into ECOMOGs mandate, as well as into its own initiatives to promote peace and stability in Sierra Leone. ECOMOG should desist from obstructing humanitarian aid and take measures to minimize the impact of their military initiatives on civilian populations and structures. ECOMOG should work closely with UNOMSIL, UNHCR, and humanitarian agencies to assure that accurate and neutral information regarding security is provided to the public, especially to refugees, displaced populations, and aid workers.
The international community also has a crucial role to play in order to promote human rights, the rule of law, and stability in Sierra Leone. United Nations agencies are well placed to implement programs and policies to meet these ends in Sierra Leone. UNOMSIL should closely monitor ECOMOGs respect for international humanitarian law and assure that ECOMOGs mandate to train the new Sierra Leonean army results in an ethnically and geographically balanced force, and includes adequate training in the laws of war. UNOMSIL should reinforce and integrate human rights into its existing mandate, primarily through further support for its human rights office. This office should be given the resources necessary at U.N. headquarters as well as in the field to monitor and report publicly on the human rights situation throughout the country. Additionally, the office must have the capacity to provide technical assistance and training to the Sierra Leonean government and local human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Finally, UNOMSIL must carefully monitor the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program for combatants, developed by the World Bank and the Sierra Leonean government. UNOMSIL should provide oversight to ensure that ECOMOG, responsible for the implementation of the DDRprogram, treats captured or surrendered combatants, especially the large number of child soldiers, in a humane fashion, and works closely with other agencies to facilitate the reintegration of children and other former combatants into civilian communities.
As resources permit, UNHCR should assure that refugees be moved in a timely and humane fashion from insecure camps near the border areas in both Liberia and Guinea. UNHCR should increase its protection of the most vulnerable refugees, in particular the significant number of unaccompanied minors, unaccompanied women, and victims of atrocities. In Guinea, UNHCR should insist upon access to asylum seekers in detention, the screening and registration process at border areas, and, in a manner compatible with security concerns, access to the refugee camps. In Liberia, former AFRC/RUF combatants should be separated from civilian refugees and registered into programs for their reintegration into civil society or prosecuted where appropriate.
In order to put an end to the cycles of violence and atrocities against civilians, the international community will have to focus and sustain its attention on the root causes of conflict in Sierra Leone. With the democratically elected Kabbah government reinstalled, the international community should seize the occasion to make the respect for human rights an integral part of its presence and programs in Sierra Leone. International interventions should support the governments efforts to establish institutions of justice and the rule of law, as well as promote a vibrant civil society with full respect for human rights. If human rights issues are not tackled head-on, the international community and Sierra Leonean people will continue to bear the high cost of further conflict and providing relief for victims.
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