Overshadowed by conflict in Liberia and events elsewhere on the continent, Sierra Leone has largely escaped the attention of the international community. Over the past seven years, aside from the involvement of diamond mining firms, international interest has focused on the provision of humanitarian assistance to victims of the internal conflict and, to a lesser extent, finding political or military solutions to end the violence. Until recently, human rights concerns have largely taken a back seat to emergency relief, support for military interventions, or efforts to negotiate peace between the various warring parties.
The recent surge in atrocities against civilians in Sierra Leone has raised a limited level of awareness from the international community regarding the human rights implications of the crisis. In general, the plight of civilians in Sierra Leone has had to compete with other refugee-related emergencies for the attention of international players. This competition, often with crises in Europe, combined with a general lack of funds for UNHCR and otherhumanitarian agencies, has resulted in insufficient responses to the political, humanitarian, and human rights situation in Sierra Leone. In the words of one human rights worker, half the battle is keeping Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia on the worlds radar screen.82
In June 1998, a team of three experts from the World Bank visited Sierra Leone to discuss and refine a program for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) with the Sierra Leonean government. The World Bank, UNDP, and other donors have agreed to fund this program, to be carried out by ECOMOG. The United Nations Observer Mission to Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) will have the critical role of monitoring and assisting with the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants and assuring the respect for international humanitarian law during this process.83 The success of this program and the humane treatment of former combatants from all sides will be crucial to bring about an end to the conflict in Sierra Leone.84
A major challenge to the international community is developing policies and providing assistance that protect human rights and promote peace and stability in the long run. Some past and present policies of governments and international organizations, as discussed below, have targeted only short-term political, economic, or military objectives, while ignoring fundamental human rights concerns. As the reinstated Kabbah government rebuilds national institutions of justice, and ECOMOG creates a new national army, the international community is presented with a unique opportunity to promote human rights in Sierra Leone.
In response to political, military, humanitarian, and human rights developments since February 1998, the U.N. presence in Sierra Leone is undergoing significant expansion. In early July, following a report on Sierra Leone from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a measure to establish the United Nations Observer Mission to Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL),85 subsuming and expanding the office of the U.N. Special Envoy to Sierra Leone. UNOMSILs role will increase the present U.N. military observer presence from approximately ten to seventy officers along with support and medical staff. Its mandate will include monitoring and helping ECOMOG with the DDR program for combatants; reporting on the security situation; and monitoring respect for international humanitarian law at disarmament and demobilization sites.86
The secretary-generals June report also calls for adding three human rights officers to support the existing human rights advisor in the Office of the Special Envoy. These officers would have a monitoring role and the task of addressing the countrys long-term human rights institution building needs.87 A July 13 U.N. Security Council Resolution further states that UNOMSIL should advise the Government of Sierra Leone and local police officials on police practice, training, re-equipment and recruitment, in particular on the need to respect internationally acceptedstandards of policing in democratic societies.88 The Security Council also reiterated the secretary-generals report in calling for UNOMSIL to report on violations of international humanitarian law and human rights in Sierra Leone, and in consultation with the relevant U.N. agencies, to assist the government of Sierra Leone in its efforts to address the countrys human rights needs.
In addition to these statements, United Nations officials have paid significant attention to the human rights situation in Sierra Leone in recent months, largely due to the scale and horrific nature of atrocities committed against civilians. Several agencies have sent high-level delegations to the region, while five senior U.N. officials issued an unprecedented joint statement calling for an end to the atrocities and impunity, and underscoring the need for an International Criminal Court to hold perpetrators accountable for the atrocities.89
The current crisis in Sierra Leone is a brutal reminder to the delegations now meeting in Rome of the urgent need for an effective international criminal court to provide justice for the appalling violations of human rights in that country and elsewhere. Since April this year, rebel forces in the east, north and, more recently, the west of Sierra Leone have engaged in a terror campaign involving the systematic laceration, mutilation or severing of limbs of non-combatants, including children and the elderly.
In addition to the office of the special envoy, other U.N. agencies in Sierra Leone have engaged in a number of initiatives in recent months designed to protect rights and promote reconciliation and peace. In conjunction with the U.N. special envoy for Sierra Leone and the U.N. special representative for children in armed conflict, UNICEF has pushed for the creation of a joint task force for the demobilization of child combatants and other measures to protect the rights of children. Among other U.N. initiatives in human rights and civic education, UNDP approved a $2.5 million support program in June to the Sierra Leonean National Commission on Democracy and Human Rights to promote reconciliation, forgiveness, and civic education.90
It will be critical that these programs put into practice the principles that they preach. ECOMOGs poor human rights record in the past raises questions about its appropriateness as trainer of the new Sierra Leonean army, unless it is closely monitored and assisted by qualified UNOMSIL personnel. The National Commission on Human Rights and Democracy has also been widely criticized for being corrupt and inefficient. Donors must ensure that implementing organizations or government ministries have the technical expertise, capacity, and will to implement these and other programs that promote or protect human rights. Monitoring and coordination among the various implementing U.N. agencies, government ministries, and NGOs will be critical to making good use of funds dedicated to rights issues.
As required by its mandate, UNOMSIL should insist that ECOMOG respect the rights of demobilized combatants and that high standards are maintained throughout the training of the new Sierra Leonean army in international humanitarian law. Linked with this responsibility, UNOMSIL should work closely with ECOMOG to monitor arms flows and recruitment in support of AFRC/RUF. Human Rights Watch received numerous allegations that the AFRC/RUF was continuing to receive arms from outside the country, via land and air. In order to monitorand deter military support to the AFRC/RUF, a strong presence of UNOMSIL will be necessary to monitor arms trafficking, in particular along the porous border with Liberia. The monitoring of the Liberian border should be performed in conjunction with ECOMOG forces in Liberia.
ECOWAS and ECOMOG have played key roles in recent political negotiations and military interventions respectively in Sierra Leone. As part of bilateral security accords, Nigerian forces and Guinean forces have been in Sierra Leone since 1995 to help the NPRC and, later, the Kabbah government to fight the RUF. The Nigerian and Guinean forces were in Sierra Leone at the time of the May 25, 1997 coup, and later reinforced ECOMOGs efforts to oust the AFRC/RUF.
Following the 1997 coup, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) called on ECOWAS to restore constitutional order to Sierra Leone. When their negotiations with the AFRC/RUF failed to achieve progress, ECOWAS imposed an economic embargo, which was later reinforced by an October 1997 U.N. Security Council global arms and oil embargo91 and restrictions on international travel by AFRC/RUF members and their families.92 ECOMOG enforced these sanctions with the permission of ECOWAS and the Security Council. With the failure of diplomatic efforts and the escalation of tension, ECOMOGs mandate was upgraded from sanction enforcement to actual military intervention to oust the AFRC/RUF. The ECOMOG contingent in Sierra Leone is led by Nigerian Commander Brigadier General Maxwell Khobe and composed of approximately 9,000 troops, predominately Nigerian with several Guinean support battalions. As of June 23, Gambia, Ghana93 and Niger94 had all promised to send troops to reinforce ECOMOG. In late July, ECOMOG announced that it was finishing the transfer of its headquarters from Monrovia to Freetown and that an additional 3,500 troops would soon arrive.95
While residents of Freetown and Sierra Leonean refugees consistently stated that ECOMOGs role in ousting the AFRC/RUF and enabling a return to civilian rule was welcome, international humanitarian groups complained that shelling by ECOMOG led to a high number of civilian casualties. One humanitarian organization in Freetown at that time stated that even after ECOMOG had been provided with maps of high-density population zones and medical structures, shelling continued in these areas for several days, resulting in over 600 war-wounded hospital admissions during a nine-day period in early February.96
Despite these serious allegations, ECOMOG has been praised by the Sierra Leonean press and international community, largely due to its military success in Sierra Leone and significant improvements in its conduct since its intervention in Liberia. United Nations military observers and aid workers attributed the improvements in ECOMOGs human rights record to improved supervision, more regular payment of salaries, and a sensitivity to pastcriticisms.97 ECOMOG has also evacuated dozens of war victims via helicopter and road, saving many civilian lives. However, ECOMOG and Kamajor commandeering of humanitarian vehicles has been, in the words of the director of one aid organization, blatant and prevalent.98 In response to this problem, which has significantly obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid, the United Nations Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Unit (HACU) organized a seminar for ECOMOG and Kamajors in the Bo district in May.99 In May and June 1998, ECOMOG and the Ministry of Defense repeatedly declared in public that the Kamajors were entirely under the control of ECOMOG.100 While the obstruction of aid decreased after this and subsequent seminars and the arrival of logistical support and trucks donated by the United States in May, at least one humanitarian group stated that ECOMOG had yet to return one aid vehicle by late June 1998.
ECOMOG holds the key responsibilities of disarming and demobilizing combatants as well as forming and training the new Sierra Leonean army. ECOMOG commander Maxwell Khobe has stated that the new army will be ethnically and regionally balanced.101 ECOMOGs past human rights record in Liberia and problems in the present, however, underscore the need for UNOMSIL to provide assistance and closely monitor the disarmament, demobilization, and training processes to assure that the new army is founded upon principles of respect for international humanitarian law.102
Misinformation regarding the security situation in Sierra Leone has created serious risks for both Sierra Leonean refugees and civilians within the country. ECOMOG, along with Sierra Leonean government and some U.N. officials, has downplayed the capacity of the AFRC/RUF and portrayed the security conditions in Sierra Leone as safe and returning to normal in many districts. This information has contrasted sharply with reports from aid organizations with a field presence as well as from other U.N. officials. During a humanitarian assessment mission to Koidu on June 10, aid workers were told by an ECOMOG commander on the scene that the area had been entirely secured by ECOMOG and that security was no problem.103 Several hours later, after the mission left Koidu, AFRC/RUF forces began the first of several sustained attacks over four days on the town, temporarily pushing ECOMOG out of strategic positions.104
Information regarding the security situation in Sierra Leone reaches refugees generally through international radio and new arrivals to the camps. Refugees reported that misinformation regarding security conditions in Sierra Leone had on several occasions led to voluntary repatriation to zones perceived as safe. Human Rights Watch interviewed refugees in Guinea who claimed that dozens of refugees had been killed while attempting to return to the Koidu area in April.105 Their decision to repatriate was made following declarations on international radio claiming that area was under the control of ECOMOG. In order to protect refugees, civilians in Sierra Leone, and humanitarian workers, both ECOMOG and UNOMSIL should ensure that accurate information regarding security conditions is provided to the public, especially to refugees, internally displaced persons, and aid workers.
Since May 1998, the United Kingdom, European Union (E.U.), and United States have issued several strong statements denouncing the human rights violations committed by the AFRC/RUF in Sierra Leone. On May 21, 1998, the U.S. Department of State and European Union issued a joint statement which expressed their grave concern over the atrocities.
The European Union and the United States strongly condemn these horrific actions and urge all parties to call an immediate end to the senseless slaughter, mutilation, and torture of the civilian population and show full respect for human rights.106
In June, the U.S. and E.U. sent a joint high-level assessment mission to the region led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Julia Taft which resulted in financial pledges for humanitarian assistance in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. These calls for an end to atrocities against civilians and financial commitments for humanitarian assistance should be combined with long-term support from the U.S. and the E.U. that promotes human rights and the rule of law.
In addition to its support of elections in 1996, the E.U. has had a significant and growing presence in Sierra Leone and neighboring countries affected by the refugee flows. Through the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), the E.U. has been the most important donor of non-food humanitarian aid to Sierra Leone, contributing over 20 million European Equivalency Units (ECU) (over U.S. $22 million), since 1993, mostly to support the activities of international humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). ECHO has also provided aid in response to the refugee crisis in Guinea and Liberia, while the European Commission has been a long-term supporter of development activities and infrastructure projects in Sierra Leone. ECHO is now considering a 6 million ECU (U.S. $ 6.6 million) global aid package for assistance in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
Both the U.S. and U.K. have played significant roles in recent political and military developments in Sierra Leone. The U.S. is the single largest donor in response to the Sierra Leonean crisis, having contributed $53 million in food, humanitarian and other aid in fiscal year 1998, including support for ECOMOG. The British have led fund-raising efforts at the European Union for the 1996 elections, ECOMOG, and other assistance. Both the U.S. and the U.K. have provided support for the Nigeria-led ECOMOG force in Sierra Leone.107 In May, the U.S. StateDepartment announced $3.9 million for logistical support to ECOMOG through Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE).108 PAE is a U.S.-based military logistics firm contracted to provide transportation, communication, and other support to ECOMOG. The U.K. has contributed £2 million (U.S. $ 3.3 million) to a U.N. trust fund for peacekeeping activities in Sierra Leone, some of which may be used to support ECOMOG.
This support for ECOMOG should be accompanied by close monitoring of its conduct and complemented by additional efforts to protect human rights. The U.S. and U.K. should closely monitor the performance of ECOMOG in international humanitarian law observance and in its disarmament, demobilization, and training efforts. In particular, the U.S. and U.K. should insist on high-quality training in international humanitarian law for the new Sierra Leonean army and on the humane treatment of demobilized combatants from all sides. The U.K. has sent an evaluation team to Sierra Leone to consider a police training program to Sierra Leone. The success of these types of initiatives in contributing to building institutions that protect human rights will depend largely on their careful design and monitoring of their implementation.
Both the U.S. and the U.K. have encouraged negotiated solutions to end the violence, most recently during talks at Abidjan in November 1996 and at Conakry in October 1997. Since the scale of atrocities has increased, the U.K. has been cautious about promoting negotiations with the AFRC/RUF. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, U.K. High Commissioner Peter Penfold stated that the U.K. was not pushing in public or in private for negotiations with the AFRC/RUF. The U.S. has taken a more open stand, stating that it:
did not preclude any possible option that might lead to peace. ECOWAS, with the support of the international community, must explore every political avenue and determine the best way to proceed.109
The U.S. elaborated that the RUF and former junta leadership must first, however, unambiguously and honestly renounce atrocities against civilians before talks could begin.
The U.S. has been a key supporter of humanitarian organizations, including the UNHCR, and has recently promised an additional $19.5 million to support international humanitarian organizations working in response to the Sierra Leonean crisis and for the repatriation of Liberian refugees. Additional funds have been allocated to supporting civic education, and, to a lesser extent, the initiatives of local human rights groups. Through its Office of Transition Initiatives, the U.S. is providing $900,000 in programs for war-affected children, the reintegration of former combatants, and to promote reconciliation. The U.S. should continue to expand its funding for well-coordinated training and support programs for civil society, in particular for local organizations promoting human rights and the rule of law.
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