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Letter to U.S. President Clinton on the Sierra Leone Conflict

Dear President Clinton,

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. While it is impossible to give accurate figures for the number of casualties, perhaps 50,000 people have died and up to [half] the population of 4.5 million is displaced, of which an estimated 480,000 are refugees who have crossed international borders into Guinea and Liberia. Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of amputation in the world - though it is not a country with a serious landmine problem.

The rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have systematically murdered, mutilated, and raped civilians throughout their campaign. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, during their January 1999 occupation of the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, the RUF killed thousands of civilians, committing scores of massacres of civilians hiding in houses, churches, or mosques; amputated the limbs of hundreds of persons, including a number of young children; and systematically rounded up girls and women, particularly those deemed to be virgins and took them to rebel command centers, where they were raped individually or in groups. From witness accounts, it seems that the rebels have special "amputation" and "execution" units which specialize in these particular types of abuses. As the rebels withdrew from the capital, they abducted others, including children who were immediately put in training to become soldiers themselves. They set entire neighborhoods on fire, leaving up to 80 percent of some areas in ashes and an estimated 51,000 civilians in the capital homeless. The Nigerian-led peacekeeping forces of Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) also committed serious abuses during the January offensive, including summary executions of at least 180 suspected rebels or collaborators, but these abuses were at a lower level than the crimes committed by the RUF.

While the plight of civilians and the scale of atrocities committed in Sierra Leone is similar to the situation in Kosovo and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, the contrast in terms of international response is striking. Although some governments, including the United Kingdom, United States, the Netherlands, and Canada have made significant contributions to the Sierra Leonean crisis, 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.

No Western power has committed serious resources to assisting those who have fled into neighboring Guinea and Liberia to escape the atrocities. Earlier this year, UNHCR launched an emergency appeal for $8 million for Sierra Leone refugees. By early June, the agency had received only $1.3 million. But in Kosovo, UNHCR has spent an estimated $10 million a week since the latest crisis started. When Serb forces began lobbing shells into Albanian villages, aid groups rapidly mobilized to move refugee camps further from the border. Meanwhile, dozens of Sierra Leoneans have already died in rebel attacks on their camps in Guinea, some of which are less than a mile away from the border.

The disparity between the international response to Kosovo and Sierra Leone exists not only in the area of refugee protection and humanitarian assistance. While the United States has sent more than fifty FBI investigators to Kosovo to gather evidence of war crimes, it has expressed little interest in bringing the perpetrators of similar crimes in Sierra Leone to justice. The United States has recognized its failure to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and has pledged "never again" to stand by in the face of such massive atrocities. In Sierra Leone, the fundamental guarantees of humanitarian law have been grossly and systematically violated, as in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, yet the U.S. response demonstrates that African problems still receive inadequate attention.

An international intervention on the scale of a NATO bombing campaign would not be necessary to address the human rights crisis in Sierra Leone. What is needed is diplomatic and economic pressure, consistently applied. 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. U.S. support for this process can help to ensure that the temporary ceasefire currently in place becomes a long-lasting peace.

In particular, the U.S. should emphasize that 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. It is necessary for the future peace of the country that at least 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. Rather, they should face trials respecting the full extent of national and international law. The citizens of Rwanda and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia 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. In light of the fact that the Sierra Leonean judicial system and police force are weak even in the capital and non-existent in much of the country, the U.S. should focus, with other international actors, especially on strengthening these and other state institutions necessary to re-establish a rule of law. This is not an impossible task, if there is serious international commitment to seeing it achieved.

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. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone has indicated that he would support the creation of a truth commission. It is important that such a body emphasize justice as well as reconciliation.

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, the United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone, 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 and carrying out programs of human rights education.


Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa division


  • Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., Special Envoy of the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa
  • Gayle Smith, Senior Director for African Affairs, National Security Council
  • Susan E. Rice, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs

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