The Lome Peace Accord signed on July 7, l999 between the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the government of Sierra Leone committed the rebels to lay down their arms in exchange for representation in a new government. It also included a controversial general amnesty for all crimes committed during the war. Despite hopes that the peace process would bring an end to the atrocities that characterized this brutal nine-year war, abuses continued unabated.
The nine months following the signing of the agreement brought about a relative reduction in abuses and few cases of the RUF signature atrocity-limb amputation-were documented. However, sexual assault against women and girls continued unabated. The collapse of the peace process in May, after the capture of some five hundred United Nations peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), reversed this trend. Renewed conflict ushered in increases in human rights abuses by the RUF and rebel militias, including limb amputation, and a disturbing intensification of abuses by pro-government forces.
The success of the peace process had been measured by enrollment in the cornerstone Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program, with little respect for human rights and the establishment of the rule of law. The collapse of the peace process brought about a reassessment of the provision for a general amnesty in the Lome Accord and mobilized national and international support for a war crimes tribunal.
Rebel United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council/ex-Sierra Leonean Army (AFRC/ex-SLA)
In the months following the signing of the accord, the overwhelming majority of cease-fire violations registered by UNAMSIL were rebel attacks against civilians.
Rebel combatants filtering back into the capital, Freetown, committed extortion, car theft, robberies, and other acts of lawlessness. The authorities demonstrated a reluctance to investigate or to arrest rebels responsible for such crimes, in part for fear that such arrests might threaten rebel cooperation with the DDR program.
Following the resumption of hostilities in May, RUF forces intensified their attacks on civilians. There were frequent reports of RUF abuses including murder, widespread rape, limb amputation, forced labor, abduction, and looting. Most of these attacks occurred in the context of raids for food. There were several cases of limb amputation, even of women, elderly, and children as young as twelve. Within the areas under their control, the RUF continued to use intimidation to impose a "taxation" system, extorting food and money from civilians.
When indiscriminate attacks by a government helicopter gunship provoked a mass exodus of civilians from areas under RUF control, the RUF responded by becoming particularly brutal, setting off a further exodus of civilians from RUF areas. There were also many cases of forced labor within the diamond mining areas of Kono, and the RUF reportedly murdered civilians accused of mining without its approval. On May 8, armed men inside the home of RUF leader Foday Sankoh opened fire on a crowd of civilian demonstrators, killing nineteen.
Starting in May, the RUF began conscripting many children and adolescents, including some girls, and scores of civilians had the letters RUF carved into them with knives or razors. In May, RUF commanders in Makeni forced some forty demobilized child soldiers living within an interim care center to rejoin the RUF's ranks. Fear of conscription contributed to the flight of thousands of civilians from rebel-held areas. The RUF frequently used "buying back" of conscripted youth by family members as another tactic for extorting money.
Members of the AFRC/ex-SLA based around the Occra Hills (forty miles from Freetown) also imposed a reign of terror on villagers within Port Loko and Masiaka districts. These soldiers carried out rape, murder, torture, abduction, massive looting, forced labor, and indiscriminate ambushes along a major highway. The AFRC/ex-SLA murdered numerous civilians for not having enough money, for being unable to carry looted items, or for refusing to have sexual relations with a combatant. This violence forced thousands of villagers into camps for the internally displaced. The Sierra Leonean Government, Economic Community Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), and UNAMSIL forces madevery few efforts to actively pursue the rebels or to protect the civilian population. The attacks only ended in September after an operation by British paratroopers to free British and Sierra Leonean soldiers previously taken hostage by the AFRC/ex-SLA.
Thousands of abducted prisoners continued to be held in rebel areas. Before the collapse of the peace process, the AFRC/ex-SLA released several small groups of prisoners, but continued to abduct others. At this writing, some four thousand children registered by UNICEF as missing during the war had yet to be located. The vast majority were presumed to have been abducted by the RUF.
The collapse of the accord brought about a marked increase in human rights abuses by government forces. These included rape, extortion, the Sierra Leonean Army's indiscriminate use of a helicopter gunship, and the killing of RUF prisoners by members of the Civil Defense Force (CDF) militias, the largest and most powerful of which were the Kamajors.
The Sierra Leonean government caused massive civilian casualties and displacement through helicopter gunship attacks during May and June against rebel strongholds in Makeni, Magburaka, and Kambia. The indiscriminate use of the gunship against market places caused at least thirty civilians deaths.
The tribally based CDF militia became considerably less disciplined. Extortion and brutality by CDF militiamen at checkpoints became routine. Violence against women had been very uncommon among CDF militias until recently, primarily because of the belief that a warrior's power was dependent upon sexual abstinence. However, numerous cases of sexual assault were documented this year, including gang rape by Kamajor militiamen and commanders. There were several cases of CDF militias ransacking villages and commandeering cars from civilians and aid agencies. There were numerous reports of CDF militias torturing and killing suspected RUF rebels. CDF militiamen routinely intimidated and threatened policemen attempting to enforce the rule of law. In Kenema in September the police chief was badly beaten by Kamajors protesting the arrest of one of their members on drug charges.
Following the May crisis, the government of Sierra Leone detained hundreds of suspected rebels and their collaborators under the 1991 State of Emergency Act. The names of only 121 of them were later made public by the government, as required under the act. Several hundred more were held illegally, including at least thirteen children. In August, 173 detainees were released as a gesture of good will toward the RUF, while ninety-two remained in custody. The government had yet to authorize the International Committee for the Red Cross to work within jails and detention facilities.
While there was a relative reduction in most classes of gross human rights abuses in the months following the Lome Accord, sexual assault against women and girls, particularly by members of the RUF and AFRC/ex-SLA, continued unabated. There were numerous cases of rape of children as young as ten. Commanders from all government and rebel factions were involved in perpetrating and ordering sexual abuse, and the authorities made little effort to protect women.
Children continue to be subjected to all forms of violence and be recruited as combatants by both rebel forces and to a lesser extent the CDF. Several children were murdered by the RUF and at least two suffered limb amputations. Numerous girls, as young as ten, were subjected to sexual abuse both in Sierra Leone and as refugees in Guinea. Children were abducted from villages and off of buses by rebel forces, and used as forced labor to carry looted goods, as sexual slaves for male combatants, and for work in the diamond mines. Over 1,700 child combatants were demobilized before the collapse of the peace process, but from the May collapse to this date, only 115 had been registered. While some eight hundred children were reunified with their families between January and August, some four thousand children were still registered as missing (most abducted by rebel forces).
Internally Displaced People and Refugees
Following the May crisis, both RUF abuses and the indiscriminate use of the government helicopter gunship caused a mass exodus of some 330,000 civilians from behind rebel lines. Of these, 15,000 fled across the border to Guinea. Once out of RUF territory, civilians were often captured and accused of being rebel sympathizers by government militias which sometimes beat them, extorted money, and murdered them. Following a government offensive in the Kono region in August, thousands of civilians attempting to flee into Guinea were denied entry. After pressure from UNHCR, some women, children and elderly refugees were allowed to enter into Guinea. In September, some five thousand Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea were rounded up and detained in response to cross-border attacks into Guinea from Sierra Leone and Liberia. There were reports of several deaths, widespread rape, and massive looting during the attacks. Some 380,000 refugees in Guinea continued to be subject to frequent intimidation by the Guinean military and civilian militias.
Humanitarian Workers and Journalists
Aid workers and their beneficiaries came under frequent attack by the RUF and to a lesser extent by pro-government militias. Following the crisis in early May, aid workers were forced to withdraw from RUF-held areas and had access to less than half of the country. The RUF attacked and looted feeding centers, threatened local and expatriate doctors with death, abducted aid workers, and, in one case, raped malnourished beneficiaries.
Rebel forces killed one Sierra Leonean and two foreign reporters in May. The Sierra Leonean was shot on May 8 when RUF combatants inside the house of leader Foday Sankoh opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, and two foreign reporters were killed on May 27 in a rebel ambush on their convoy near Rogberi Junction. It was not known if they were targeted for being journalists or because Sierra Leonean soldiers accompanied them. An editor from a local paper was detained in May after being accused of being an RUF collaborator. Several other journalists reported being beaten or detained.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) mandated to be established within ninety days of the signing of the Lome Peace Accord had yet to be set up. Following the May crisis, activity toward establishing the TRC was officially frozen by the U.N. Office of Human Rights. U.N. and other organizations struggled to determine whether the TRC was still relevant following the resumption of hostilities, and if so, what its relationship would be with the proposed Special Court.
In July 1999, the special representative of the secretary-general added a reservation to the Lome Accord, stating that the U.N. did not recognize amnesty insofar as it applied to crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Nevertheless, the U.N. made no effort to pursue justice for such crimes until the hostage crisis in May. The crisis and the apprehension of Foday Sankoh put justice squarely on the international agenda. In June, the Sierra Leonean government asked for U.N. assistance to establish a court in Sierra Leone with a mix of local and foreign prosecutors and judges. The RUF remained the target, and there were concerted efforts to retain the Lome amnesty for other parties to the conflict.
The U.S. eventually took the lead in the Security Council and drafted a proposal for a special court for Sierra Leone that would not be an organ of the Security Council, and would thus avoid time-consuming U.N. bureaucracy. On August 14, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1315, authorizing the secretary-general to enter into negotiations with the government to establish an independent, special court to bring perpetrators of the most serious violations of international humanitarian law to justice. On October 5, the secretary-general submitted a report with recommendations and proposals for the establishment of the special court, which was under consideration by the Security Council. The report proposed the court be a hybrid using both international and Sierra Leonean law, judges and prosecutors. It also included a controversial proposal to put child soldiers between fifteen and eighteen years of age on trial and proposed that the jurisdiction should extend back to November 30, l996, the date of Sierra Leone's first peace agreement.
This year, Sierra Leone ratified the Rome Statute to establish an International Criminal Court and enacted legislation to make the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Protocols a part of Sierra Leonean law.
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Human RIghts Watch