(New York) — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright should show the same commitment to justice in Sierra Leone that she has shown for victims of crimes against humanity in Kosovo and East Timor.
Human Rights Watch urged Secretary Albright to express strong support for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body which is envisaged in the Sierra Leone peace agreement but has not yet been established. Similarly, the U.S. should back the formation of an United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights violations in the eight year civil war.
The United States helped broker the peace agreement, which includes a general amnesty for all crimes committed during the war. In a June 1999 report, Human Rights Watch documented these extensive atrocities, including the murder, rape, and limb amputation of thousands of civilians.
"The United States has not pursued justice as vigorously in Sierra Leone as it has in other parts of the world," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division. "We believe the amnesty in Sierra Leone is a mistake and will undermine the peace agreement in the end. But having supported it, Secretary Albright should now do everything possible to see that these terrible crimes become part of the public record. The United States cannot participate in whitewashing the atrocities of this war."
Since the signing of the Peace Agreement on July 7, the rebels have continued to rape and abduct civilians and loot villages Human Rights Watch urged Secretary Albright to back a stronger mandate for a United Nations peacekeeping force to enforce the July 7 peace agreement between the Sierra Leonean government and rebels. The U.N. Security Council will vote this week on whether to give the peacekeepers "Chapter Seven" powers, which would authorize them to use force to protect civilians. Human Rights Watch said Secretary Albright should also use her meeting with Foday Sankoh, the leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front who has now joined the government, to urge him to release thousands of abductees. At least 2,871 children have been missing since the rebels' January offensive on Freetown. The rebels are also still using hundreds of girls and women as sexual partners whom they have pledged to release.
In regard to Nigeria, Secretary Albright should welcome the steps the new Nigerian government has taken to improve human rights and the rule of law, such as extending the mandate of a commission to investigate past human rights abuses to 1966, the date of the first military coup. The U.S. should recognize President Olusegun Obasanjo's efforts to defuse the crisis in the Niger Delta, but urge him not to allow Nigerian security forces to respond violently to expressions of discontent in the region, Human Rights Watch said. In particular, the U.S. should press for an independent judicial enquiry to investigate past and current human rights violations in the Niger Delta, and to discipline or prosecute those responsible. Over the last few days, Human Rights Watch has received disturbing reports of fresh disturbances and arrests in Ogoniland.
Nigeria's new president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has released many political prisoners and made commitments to respect the rule of law. But several pernicious laws remain on the books, including the Public Order Law and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Decree, which are not in accordance with constitutional guarantees for human rights.
"President Obasanjo has made a good start toward improving Nigeria's human rights record," said Takirambudde. "But the country needs a complete legal overhaul, starting with the constitution. The Secretary of State can praise Obasanjo for what he has done so far—but she needs to make it clear that the U.S. expects far more."