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Dear High Commissioner, 

Sierra Leone has seen some of the worst violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the world during its terrible eight-year civil war. The current peace negotiations taking place in Lomé, Togo, offer some hope that the country's long nightmare may at last be coming to a close.

Human Rights Watch welcomes the commitment to Sierra Leone and to this peace process shown by your decision to visit the country on June 24. The purpose of your visit is stated in the sixth report of the U.N. secretary-general on the U.N. Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) to be: 

to support the peace process, to encourage future programmes for the promotion and protection of human rights in the country, and to draw attention to the plight of children, women and civilians bearing the brunt of the excesses in Sierra Leone.

Human Rights Watch wholeheartedly supports these objectives. We also believe that your mission must be to ensure that respect for human rights and humanitarian law is built into the very fabric of any ultimate peace accords between the government and rebel forces. If any settlement of the conflict in Sierra Leone is to be lasting and just, it must ensure not only that the current parties lay down their weapons, but also that processes are put in place to ensure that the long cycle of impunity for abuse in Sierra Leone is ended.

In July 1998, Human Rights Watch published a report on human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war in Sierra Leone, "Sowing Terror: Atrocities Against Civilians in Sierra Leone." The report we are publishing today, "Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, and Rape: New Testimony from Sierra Leone," details abuses during the January 1999 rebel occupation of the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown. The atrocities we have documented over the past year - similar to abuses committed since the civil war began in 1991 - include gross and systematic abuses by the rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), entailing the widespread and indiscriminate murder of civilians; rape; mutilation; abduction of civilians, especially women and children, for purposes of sexual slavery, labor, and training as child combatants; the use of human shields; and violations of medical neutrality. We have also documented abuses by government forces and by the peacekeeping troops of the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) which has supported the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Though of lesser extent, these abuses are still serious, and include summary executions of suspected rebels or collaborators, use of child soldiers, and indiscriminate bombings.

Both parties have grossly violated the fundamental guarantees of humanitarian law in Sierra Leone. The unthinkable atrocities described in our reports constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Grave breaches of the laws of war and crimes against humanity are crimes of universal jurisdiction: they are so universally recognized as abhorrent and in the interests of the entire international community to suppress that any nation may prosecute the perpetrators, regardless of their nationality, the nationality of victims or of where the crime took place.

In Sierra Leone particularly horrific and inhumane methods have been used to fight a war against the civilian population. Human Rights Watch calls on all parties to the war, but especially the RUF rebels, who have been guilty of the worst abuses, to respect international humanitarian law as laid down in the Geneva Conventions and their protocols. In particular, the parties to the conflict must distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants and desist from targeting civilians for attack. Although influencing the actions of the rebel forces in Sierra Leone is difficult, international pressure must be maintained to try to ensure that these crimes cease.

On May 18, 1999, the Sierra Leonean government and RUF rebels signed a cease-fire agreement; on May 25, a dialogue between the government and the RUF began at Lomé, Togo. The peace talks are being guided by a facilitation committee chaired by the foreign minister of Togo, with the participation of ECOWAS, the Organization of African Unity, and the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general, Francis G. Okelo. It is not yet clear where these negotiations will lead, but in the meantime hostilities have largely come to a halt in Sierra Leone, though there have been some violations of the May 18 cease-fire reported in the rural provinces.

Any peace process in Sierra Leone must include mechanisms of accountability if it is to bring long term peace and stability to the country. Conflict in Sierra Leone has been built on a cycle of impunity that goes back almost to independence: members of all parties to the current war have benefited from this impunity. Although the ideal would be for all those suspected of having committed criminal human rights abuses to be tried and punished after trials respecting the full extent of national and international law, it is unrealistic to expect that Sierra Leone, in which state institutions such as the judicial system and police force are weak even in the capital and non-existent in much of the country, can hold full-scale trials of all those responsible even for the most egregious human rights abuses. Yet it is necessary for the future peace of the country that those who have committed the worst atrocities, especially those in command positions, are not rewarded with general amnesties and uncritical inclusion in government structures that are supposed to re-establish respect for human rights and the rule of law. The citizens of Rwanda and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) have learnt this lesson only too painfully over the last years - and the people of Sierra Leone can also look back over their own history and see the terrible consequences of repeated access to power by those who have committed gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law and never faced any consequences for their actions.

Human Rights Watch believes that the international community, including UNOMSIL and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, must emphasize the need for the current negotiations to establish mechanisms to ensure that all those in Sierra Leone who have committed grave abuses will be subject to certain minimum processes of accountability, and that those who have committed the most serious abuses are subject to trial and punishment under national and international laws.

In addition to trials for the most serious atrocities, mechanisms of accountability might include the establishment of a "truth commission" to investigate abuses committed by all sides in the civil war, to arrive at findings about those abuses, and to recommend appropriate action against those responsible and steps to be taken to avoid the repetition of similar crimes in future. We welcome the indication given by President Kabbah that he would support the creation of a truth commission. In light of the deep divisions in Sierra Leonean society and the fact that very few individuals would have the stature to be respected by all segments of the population, Human Rights Watch recommends that a truth commission should include international representation among its commissioners and staff. It is important that such a body emphasize justice as well as reconciliation.

Human Rights Watch believes that other key issues that must be addressed in any peace process are:

  • The revival and strengthening of the program for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants (the DDR program), especially in relation to child soldiers who were originally abducted.
  • The development of concrete plans for meeting the long-term needs of those who were adversely affected by the war, including the thousands of victims of limb amputation and mutilation, sexually abused women, and children who have been victims of atrocities, have witnessed atrocities (sometimes against their own parents) or have themselves taken part in atrocities.
  • The voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced to their homes under conditions which guarantee full respect for the human rights, safety, security and dignity of all.
  • The substantial reinforcement of the human rights monitoring capacity of UNOMSIL, by increasing the numbers of monitors deployed in the country so that both urban and rural areas can be monitored, and by clarifying lines of reporting within the U.N.
  • The establishment of sustainable processes to build respect for human rights and the rule of law in Sierra Leone in the long term, including strengthening local institutions for the protection of human rights, such as the judiciary, a national human rights commission, and nongovernmental human rights groups, as well as creating security forces that are respectful of human rights.

To ensure that Sierra Leone can break the cycle of violence, the international community outside Africa will have to show much greater commitment to Sierra Leone than has currently been the case. Although some governments, including the United Kingdom, United States, the Netherlands, and Canada have made significant contributions, other West African countries, in particular Nigeria, the primary country contributing forces to ECOMOG, and Guinea, which has received the largest number of refugees, have borne the greatest cost from Sierra Leone's civil war - apart from the citizens of Sierra Leone itself. The international community has demonstrated that it can react forcefully to a human rights catastrophe by its response to the Kosovo crisis. Although Human Rights Watch has been critical of some aspects of this response, and in particular has questioned targeting decisions for the bombing raids carried out by NATO, the level of international response to human rights abuses in Kosovo stands in stark contrast to the way in which the appalling atrocities committed in Sierra Leone have largely been ignored.

Your visit to Sierra Leone offers an opportunity for the international community outside Africa to show that the human rights of all human beings are equally valuable. In a recent report on the situation in Kosovo, you stated:

Any durable solution to the crisis in Kosovo will have to be built on a solid foundation of respect for human rights infrastructures, on strong national and local human rights institutions, and on a culture of respect for human rights and tolerance. It must provide an adequate basis for the future observance of human rights and the establishment of effective human rights institutions in Kosovo and throughout the FRY, as well as for the support of long-term programmes that would create or strengthen national human rights capacities.

These words apply equally to Sierra Leone.


Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa Division

Joanna Weschler
U.N. Representative


  • Gay McDougall, Executive Director, International Human Rights Law Group
  • Ketumile Masire, Former President of Botswana
  • Ambassador C. Von Heidenstam
  • Ambassador Morjane

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