In a letter to the members of the United Nations Security Council, Human Rights Watch today urged decisive action to bring war criminals in Sierra Leone to justice. The rights group also called for stepped up U.N. efforts to protect civilians, and strict enforcement of an arms and diamond embargo against the Sierra Leonean rebels.

"The U.N. must set up a credible, even-handed, and well-funded court to bring to justice the perpetrators of atrocities in Sierra Leone," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The international community must also cut off the supply of arms to the rebels and their illegal trade in diamonds which is fueling the war."

Since the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) took more than five hundred U.N. peacekeepers hostage and restarted offensive actions against the Sierra Leone government in early May, Human Rights Watch has documented a renewed surge in abuses by the RUF, including the first testimonies of amputations since the July 1999 Lomé peace accord, as well as numerous cases of rape, widespread looting, abductions, forced recruitment of child soldiers, and summary executions. Disturbingly, U.N. peacekeepers have on several occasions abandoned civilians to their fate without making any attempt to protect them from RUF attack.

The letter to the members of the U.N. Security Council called for an expansion of the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) to require the protection of civilians in areas under UNAMSIL control. "The aim of the international forces should be to create an ever-expanding zone in which civilian safety can be ensured and that there is "zero tolerance" of human rights abuse," said Takirambudde.

The group also called for a strict arms and diamond embargo, with the necessary resources to ensure their enforcement. The Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Sierra Leone in 1997, and modified it in 1998 to apply to rebel forces only, but it has not sought to enforce the embargo or investigate reported breaches. The United Kingdom has recently proposed a ban on all diamond transactions not authorized by the government of Sierra Leone.

In the letter, Human Rights Watch called on the Security Council to establish an international criminal tribunal for Sierra Leone to prosecute those accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other atrocities. It urged that the process of justice should be broad-based and inclusive, going beyond rebel leader Foday Sankoh, and that it should adhere to basic minimum standards.

"Justice for the crimes in Sierra Leone must move beyond Sankoh, and look at the conduct of all parties involved in this brutal conflict," said Takirambudde. "The trials have to meet international standards of due process and fairness. We think the Security Council should throw its weight behind an international tribunal for Sierra Leone."