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Human Rights Developments
In early February, troops of the Economic Community of West African States Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) ousted the government of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from Freetown. This ended their nine-month rule, characterized by widespread human rights abuses and a complete breakdown of the rule of law. For the past seven years a vicious civil war has engulfed Sierra Leone, characterized by atrocities against civilians, often committed by the RUF, a rebel group formed in 1991 with support from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).

Upon taking power on May 25, 1997, the AFRC suspended the constitution, banned political parties and public meetings, and announced rule by military decree. The ARFC, created by a group of senior military officers, soon joined forces with the RUF. During their joint rule, many judges, lawyers, and police fled the country, causing a total collapse of the judicial system. The AFRC/RUF government arbitrarily arrested and detained its suspected opponents and critics, including students, journalists and human rights advocates, causing thousands to seek asylum.

On March 10, the Nigerian-led ECOMOG reinstated President Tejan Kabbah, first elected in March of 1996, who subsequently declared a state of emergency. After losing political power, the AFRC/RUF alliance engaged in a war of terror against civilians, committing widespread and egregious atrocities in an attempt to regain power. Between February and June 1998 alone, its members raped, deliberately mutilated, or killed outright thousands of Sierra Leonean civilians. The AFRC/RUF abducted men, women and children, probably numbering in the thousands, for use as combatants, forced laborers, or sexual slaves. Women were actively targeted through sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery. In addition to various forms of physical abuse, innumerable civilians suffered psychological trauma from the rebels’ choice of tactics and extreme cruelty—like the severing of limbs—to compound the horror of their attacks.

Civilian Defense Forces (CDFs), civilian militias who supported the Kabbah government, also committed numerous abuses, including indiscriminate killings and torture, but on a significantly smaller scale than those carried out by the AFRC/RUF. The CDFs were created in order to provide local security and targeted for abuse those they claimed were AFRC/RUF combatants or their supporters. The largest and most powerful of the CDFs, the Kamajors, were responsible for the majority of abuses committed by those fighting on behalf of the Kabbah government. In addition to killings and torture, Kamajors also obstructed humanitarian assistance and extorted money or other payment at roadblocks.

Children were victims of gross violations of human rights committed by both sides to the conflict. The AFRC/RUF abducted an unknown number of children—probably in the thousands—for use as laborers, fighters, and in the case of girls, sexual prisoners. Many girls were forced to work for the AFRC/RUF combatants until they reached sexual maturity, when they would be assigned to a fighter as a “wife.” There were also many child soldiers among the Kamajors, and despite promises by the government to demobilize all combatants under the age of eighteen, the CDFs continued to recruit children at least until July.

The United Nations estimated that over 416,000 Sierra Leoneans fled the fighting as refugees to neighboring Guinea and Liberia or to internally displaced camps. Conditions for both internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees were often severe due to alack of access to camps and poor security conditions. In particular, the close proximity of the camps in Guinea and Liberia to the Sierra Leonean border and the presence of former combatants among the refugee population in Liberia jeopardized humanitarian assistance and protection. Many refugees and IDPs suffered from a host of problems including high levels of malnutrition and disease, as well as occasional attacks from the RUF/AFRC.

The government made repeated gestures in support of human rights, such as its pledge to provide amnesty for child soldiers and intermittent appeals to combatants to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty. In a climate of public hatred for individuals associated with the AFRC/RUF, the Kabbah government initiated legal proceedings against fifty-eight civilians in regular courts and thirty-eight former soldiers before a military court on a range of charges including treason and murder. In hearings in August and October, the High Court of Sierra Leone sentenced to death twenty-seven civilians convicted of treason, including five journalists and a seventy-five-year-old woman. International observers questioned the appropriateness of the treason charges for the journalists, and criticized the lack of a right to appeal sentencing by the military court. On October 19, the government of Sierra Leone executed by firing squad twenty-four of the soldiers who had been sentenced to death one week earlier. The trials constituted the first major test under the Kabbah government of a justice system which lacked basic infrastructure and support. Many of the over 2,000 prisoners in Sierra Leone were held under the 1998 Public Emergency Regulations, introduced by President Kabbah on March 16 and ratified by parliament, which provided for indefinite detention without trial. Prisons were often overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacking in health care and the regular provision of food.

Section 13 of the Public Emergency Regulations declared that “disturbing reports” by the media were punishable offences. On June 24, Minister of Information and Cultural Affairs Dr. Julius Spencer stated that any information regarding the security situation must be approved by ECOMOG before publication. Journalists complained further that taxes had been unjustly imposed upon newspapers in an attempt to limit their ability to publish.




The Democratic Republic of Congo







Sierra Leone

South Africa





Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Abduction and Enslavement of Ugandan Children

Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan


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