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Your Excellency,

Human Rights Watch welcomes the commitment to Sierra Leone shown, most recently, by your decision to visit the country on July 8, and soon after the visit of High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

As you know, we published a report on Sierra Leone at the time of Mary Robinson's visit, "Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation and Rape," which detailed gross abuses during the January 1999 occupation of the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, by the rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and lesser abuses by the Nigerian-led peacekeeping troops of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). We also wrote to the High Commissioner to draw her attention to the need to ensure that respect for human rights and humanitarian law is built into any peace accord to end the eight-year civil war.

We write to you to emphasize the points made in that letter and in our report. Negotiations between the Sierra Leonean government and rebel forces are currently taking place in Lomé, Togo, under the auspices of a facilitation committee chaired by the foreign minister of Togo, with the participation of ECOWAS, the Organization of African Unity, and your special representative, Francis G. Okelo. We are very concerned that these negotiations include the offer of a general amnesty in respect of all crimes committed since the Abidjan Accords of 1996, the last attempt to end the war, which itself included an amnesty. Since 1996, Human Rights Watch and others have documented continuing abuses by all sides in the civil war, and especially gross and systematic abuses by the RUF, including 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 civilians as human shields; and violations of medical neutrality. These abuses constitute grave breaches of the laws of war and crimes against humanity, deemed "crimes of universal jurisdiction" in international law: crimes that 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 your April 1998 report to the Security Council on "The causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa" you stated, in the context of a call to protect civilians in situations of conflict, that:

The monitoring and reporting of respect for human rights is a critical responsibility of the international community. Adherence to international humanitarian and human rights norms by all parties to a conflict must be insisted upon, and I intend to make this a priority in the work of the United Nations. In order to make warring parties more accountable for their actions, I recommend that combatants be held financially liable to their victims under international law where civilians are made the deliberate target of aggression. I further recommend that international legal machinery be developed to facilitate efforts to find, attach and seize the assets of transgressing parties and their leaders.

You went on to emphasize the needs of children in armed conflict, noting that:

Targeting children for attack and recruiting or abducting them into militia forces are terrible crimes that must be specifically addressed in any future war crimes statutes or prosecutions.

Human Rights Watch fully supports these statements. In addition, we restate that the international community has an obligation to prosecute crimes of the type that have been committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone. We do not believe that the U.N. should be associated with a peace process that grants impunity for the atrocities committed in the course of the conflict. 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 and abuse is ended. Peace negotiations under U.N. auspices to end the Angolan civil war included the agreement of six successive amnesties granting impunity for human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian law. These amnesties have clearly not contributed to peace: today Angola is back at war.

We are aware that it may often seem convenient in the short term to grant amnesty for crimes such as torture, extrajudicial killings, and "disappearances" as a means of inducing rebel leaders to lay down arms. But, as stressed by Human Rights Watch representatives during the May 3 meeting with you, in the long term such impunity breeds contempt for the law and only encourages, rather than deters, similar conduct. The United Nations, as a mediator in peace settlements, has often been confronted with demands to include an amnesty for human rights crimes and has consistently avoided putting its imprimatur on such an outcome. We trust that you will continue this practice.

Although a ceasefire has officially been in place between government and rebel forces in Sierra Leone since May 24, 1999, Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses by the RUF in violation of that ceasefire. It appears that the RUF is continuing with its familiar pattern of attacking civilians during or after raids on villages to obtain food. In Ropolon and Makoba villages near "Mile 91," on the road from Freetown to Bo, five civilians were hacked to death by rebels on or around June 20. In the Port Loko area one woman was killed and two raped by rebels at Rusar village on June 25. One of these rapes was of a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl by nine men. At Melikuru village rebels killed up to twenty-three civilians on June 23. There are numerous other reports from the same area that RUF rebels have recently carried out killings, amputations, and looting and the destruction of property. If these abuses are continuing even during sensitive peace negotiations, we are not confident that they will cease if a peace accord is reached that does not provide for processes to prevent and punish them.

Human Rights Watch believes that the international community, above all the United Nations must emphasize the need for the current negotiations to establish mechanisms to ensure that those who have committed grave abuses will be subject to certain minimum processes of accountability, and that at least those who have committed the worst atrocities, especially those in command positions, are subjected to trial and punishment under national and international laws. We call on you, as secretary-general, to disassociate the U.N. from any peace deal that compromises respect for fundamental standards of human rights and humanitarian law. We also urge you to use your moral authority to speak in favor of accountability.

The U.N. should also focus on the positive steps it can take to promote accountability for gross abuses of human rights in Sierra Leone. These steps should include strengthening the Sierra Leonean judicial system and police force and other state institutions necessary to re-establish a rule of law, institutions which are currently weak even in the capital and non-existent in much of the country. Your office should commission a study examining the possibilities for bringing war criminals in Sierra Leone to justice before the courts of other countries or before an international tribunal. For example, the Security Council might establish a dedicated International Criminal Tribunal on Sierra Leone (ICTSL) with the mandate to investigate and sanction those responsible for gross violations of international humanitarian law since the civil war in Sierra Leone began in 1991.

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, 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 and have a clear mandate and time table, as well as sufficient resources and legal powers to carry out its work.

In your April 1998 report you stated, in the context of a discussion of post-conflict peace-building, that:

an integrated peace-building effort is needed to address the various factors that have caused or are threatening a conflict. Peace-building may involve the creation or strengthening of national institutions, monitoring elections, promoting human rights, providing for integration and rehabilitation programmes, and creating conditions for resumed development. ... [E]mphasis must be placed on critical priorities such as encouraging reconciliation and demonstrating respect for human rights; fostering political inclusiveness and promoting national unity; ensuring the safe, smooth and early repatriation and resettlement of refugees and displaced persons; reintegrating ex-combatants and others into productive society; curtailing the availability of small arms; and mobilizing the domestic and international resources for reconstruction and economic recovery.

All of these priorities apply to Sierra Leone, and we urge you to use your best efforts to ensure that the U.N. and its member states do not disappoint the expectations of Sierra Leone's people that the international community will come to their assistance in support of these goals.

The Nigerian-led forces of ECOMOG have carried the heaviest burden in international efforts to resolve the conflict in Sierra Leone. While they have also been guilty of abuses, it is undoubtedly the case that their presence has prevented other atrocities by rebel forces. Nigeria has paid a high price for its intervention in money and lives. There is strong pressure on Nigeria's new head of state, President Olusegun Obasanjo, to bring the Nigerian troops home. We suggest you use the opportunity of your visit to Sierra Leone and Nigeria to call for greater international support for the ECOMOG peacekeeping effort, while also insisting on the need for those forces to respect international humanitarian law to its full extent, and taking steps to ensure proper coordination of the ECOMOG effort with the U.N. in line with the recommendations of your 1998 report.

The international community must not apply double standards to Africa and Europe. As we stated in our letter to High Commissioner Robinson, the abuses committed in Sierra Leone equal those in the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. World leaders must show an equal commitment to bringing to justice war criminals in Africa as they have recently begun to do in the Balkans.


Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director, Africa Division

Joanna Weschler
U.N. Representative


  • Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • Kieran Prendergast, Under-Secretary-General Department of Political Affairs

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