Dr. Madeleine Albright
U.S. Secretary of State

Dear Dr. Albright:

We are writing to you on the urgent matter of Sierra Leone. Recent developments, notably the capture of RUF leader Foday Sankoh, vividly highlight the need for the United States to support a criminal process to bring to justice those responsible for gross abuses of human rights in Sierra Leone. In addition, we strongly urge the U.S. to work to strengthen the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone's (UNAMSIL) mandate and capacity to protect civilians. While we understand that the release of the U.N. hostages remains a key U.S. priority, it should not be pursued to the exclusion of these other pressing needs.

On the question of justice, the U.S. should take the lead in ensuring that the mistakes of the Lomé Accord are not repeated or resurrected. Lomé illustrates the hazards of trying to build a peace without justice. It shows the danger of hoping that those responsible for atrocities of the past would somehow reform when their impunity only encouraged recidivism. To avoid repeating the errors of the past, the international community should firmly and unequivocally reject the amnesty provisions of Lomé. The latest round of RUF abuses and the apprehension of Foday Sankoh permit initiating the overdue process of holding RUF leaders and others accountable for the atrocities they have committed. The U.S. should call on the Security Council to establish an International Criminal Tribunal for Sierra Leone. The tribunal should have jurisdiction over all crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of humanitarian law committed since March 1991, when the RUF launched an offensive to overthrow the Sierra Leonean government.

Because of the inevitable time required to establish an international criminal tribunal, the U.S. should call for investigators to be deployed as soon as possible to begin carefully compiling evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity that would be required for eventual prosecutions by the International Criminal Tribunal for Sierra Leone and other competent courts that respect international fair-trial standards.

The urgency of moving forward with a tribunal and credible investigations was put in stark relief by the State Department's press briefing of May 17. Spokesman Richard Boucher made a series of contradictory and deliberately ambiguous statements regarding the status of Foday Sankoh and the peace process. First he said that Sankoh's fate and the question of whether he could be rehabilitated was up to the government and people of Sierra Leone. Later, when asked whether recent events made Sankoh a war criminal or terrorist, Boucher replied: "We've said he's in violation of the Lomé Accords. We've expressed our serious and deep concern about the action of taking U.N. soldiers hostage. But the next step and exactly what category-category implies some specific action, and that really has to be left up to the government of Sierra Leone." As to whether Sankoh is a war criminal, he said: "[G]etting someone on a war crimes charge is a different thing than saying he's violated a peace accord. Now, whatever happens in that direction really we'll be seeing in the coming days. There is no decision on that point."

The U.S. and the international community should not defer to the Sierra Leonean government on such a critical matter. The task of prosecuting those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity is an urgent international concern. It requires resources that Sierra Leone does not possess. And it needs the process of gathering evidence to begin now - at a time when Sierra Leone is in no position to start - so as to maximize the potential for the tribunal to deter future atrocities.

Ultimately, the rule of law must be re-established in Sierra Leone, and in the short term, mob rule must be avoided at all costs. The U.S. should insist that due process of law be respected in all cases, including that of Foday Sankoh. We were alarmed to learn that State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, when asked directly whether the U.S. thought Sankoh ought to receive fair treatment, responded: "should [the people and government of Sierra Leone] decide on a course that requires fair treatment, or a lawyer, or anything else, we'd certainly support that." Such a statement is dangerously inflammatory in a situation as volatile as Sierra Leone.

Given the resumption of fighting, UNAMSIL, as currently constituted, is clearly no longer the appropriate authority to carry out what should be its principal task-ensuring the protection of civilians in Sierra Leone. Even before the recent crisis, UNAMSIL's carefully qualified mandate-to protect "civilians under imminent threat of violence" when it was "within its capabilities and areas of deployment"-was inadequate to ensure that abuse of civilians ceased. Furthermore, even this limited mandate was not fulfilled because the Security Council never secured for UNAMSIL the necessary means and leadership. These shortcomings are of particular concern now because, as you are well aware, serious abuses against civilians in Sierra Leone have typically occurred within the context of RUF combat activities. Civilians are now at grave risk in certain parts of the country and, despite what should be its paramount duty, UNAMSIL is not offering them any protection.

The U.S. should call on the Security Council to give a new mandate and all necessary means to a reconstituted UNAMSIL or an alternative international force to enable it as quickly as possible to protect civilians throughout Sierra Leone. The new force should be charged with coordinating all international forces in the country as well as pro-government Sierra Leonean fighters. It should deploy throughout the country as soon as possible. And it should have the clear duty and means to protect civilians.

The new international force must operate with a policy of "zero tolerance" towards violations of international humanitarian law and other abuses by rebel troops or anyone else, including forces under U.N. control as well as the Sierra Leonean troops and their allies. The new force should have the power to arrest individuals caught in the act of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. It should also be given the power now to arrest suspects once they are indicted by the future International Criminal Tribunal for Sierra Leone or any other competent court that respects international fair-trial standards.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about the continuing ability of rebel forces to acquire arms. In recent months, instead of disarming, RUF rebels have obtained additional weapons, seizing many of them from U.N. peacekeepers. In addition, Human Rights Watch has been concerned by reports that, despite being subject to an international arms embargo since 1997, RUF rebels have imported weapons via neighboring countries, including Liberia, which is also subject to a U.N. arms embargo. (We have made these reports public, most recently in a May 15 briefing paper) The RUF's ability to purchase weapons depends to a large extent on its continued control of Sierra Leone's diamond-producing areas, despite provisions in the Lomé Accord that the government shall "exercise full control of the exploitation of gold, diamonds and other resources for the benefit of the people of Sierra Leone." The U.S. should work for firm measures to stop the RUF from replenishing its military supplies and thus preparing itself for further violence and grave human rights abuses. Specifically, it should support the deployment of U.N. forces with the mandate and capability to rigorously enforce the arms embargo. The U.S. also should promote the creation of a U.N. inquiry into illegal arms flows to the RUF, including the apparent use of diamond revenues to finance weapons purchases.

U.S. statements continually refer to the implementation of the Lomé agreement and a return to a credible peace process. Another lesson of Lomé is that accommodating those responsible for atrocities-especially leaders of the RUF, but also the ex-SLA/AFRC and the civilian militias or civil defense forces commonly referred to as Kamajors-was an utter failure and does not bring sustainable peace. Accordingly, the U.S. should work to ensure that abusive forces do not continue to be rewarded with a power-sharing formula.

The U.S. has been a key player in Sierra Leone, and has a responsibility to continue its engagement. As a key architect of the unraveling Lomé Accord, the U.S. also has a responsibility to pursue a clear and forward-looking policy based on ending impunity for all sides and a firm commitment to protect civilians.

Thank you for your attention to these important matters.


Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director for Africa

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director


  • Samuel Berger, National Security Advisor
  • Thomas Pickering, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Susan Rice, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
  • Gayle Smith, Senior Director for Africa, National Security Council
  • David Scheffer, Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues
  • Harold Koh, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
  • Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Special Envoy for Democracy in Africa