Can Sierra Leone escape its hellish cycle of mutilation, rape and murder? The answer lies with the United Nations Security Council, which is meeting this week to consider how to set up a war crimes tribunal for this ravaged African country.

Having tried and failed to buy peace on the cheap, the council now faces a defining moment. How it responds will speak volumes about its capacity to meet the difficult challenge of abusive civil wars, particularly in Africa.

The last time that the U.N. had a chance to wrest Sierra Leone from its nightmare, it failed miserably. In January 1999, Freetown, the capital, was under siege by a barbarous group of thugs known as the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF lived off the country's rich diamond fields and terrorized the population with its signature atrocity of chopping off arms and hands of men, women and often children.

The government clung to power with the help of a Nigerian-led West African force known as Ecomog. But Nigeria threatened to withdraw its troops, in part because the U.N., the U.S., and other Western nations refused to help cover its expenses, which were said to come to $1 million a day. (By the time the U.S. did offer funds, the Nigerians were battle-weary and nearly broke. Many Nigerian soldiers were only fed because ordinary Sierra Leone citizens took them into their homes.)

With the Nigerians threatening to exit, the U.S. had to act. Desperate to avoid having to deploy his own troops, U.S. President Bill Clinton sent an envoy -- Jesse Jackson. Backed by Britain and a group of West African states, Mr. Jackson brokered a surrender to the RUF in the guise of a "peace accord."

This July 1999 accord, signed in the Togolese capital of Lome, granted amnesty to the RUF for all of its atrocities, named its leader, Foday Sankoh, Sierra Leone's vice president, and awarded him the ministry that controls the diamond fields. When this settlement was greeted by protests of revulsion, the U.N., at the last minute, inserted a provision denying international, as opposed to national, recognition of the amnesty. But this fig leaf failed to stimulate any action to prosecute the RUF for its many crimes against humanity. The lesson was clear: the RUF would pay no price -- indeed, would be rewarded -- for its ruthlessness.

Embarrassing Capture
It took the RUF little time to learn this lesson. Its attacks continued, and no one did anything to stop them. Then, in May 2000, as U.N. peacekeepers drawn exclusively from developing countries replaced Nigeria's forces, the RUF took several hundred U.N. troops hostage. The badly equipped, poorly led U.N. force put up little resistance. Its embarrassing capture raised troubling questions about the U.N.'s capacity and willingness to secure peace amidst Africa's civil wars.

Crack British paratroopers came to the rescue and re-established a sort of equilibrium. The capital was secured. The U.N. hostages were freed. But it was a false dawn. Most of the British forces have now withdrawn, and violence against civilians has stepped up again.

The question remains: will the U.N. do any better this time? That depends on whether the U.N. Security Council is willing to make the necessary commitment of troops and funds.

There is broad consensus in the Security Council that the response must include a stronger military presence and a reinforced arms and diamonds embargo. This should mean that U.N. troops are given the arms, equipment, and mandate to protect civilians, starting in Freetown and extending as quickly as possible to the rest of the country. Much as Western leaders do not want to hear it, that will probably require troops from the industrialized world -- and not only from Britain.

The existing arms embargo must also be monitored and rigorously enforced -- again with qualified troops patrolling borders and airfields. A newly imposed embargo on sales of diamonds from rebel-held territory must also be strictly enforced by troops and other means. These steps will help stop the deadly diamonds-for-arms trade, mostly through neighboring Liberia, that fuels the rebel rampage.

The Security Council seems also finally to agree in principle on the need to bring to justice those who have been responsible for the worst human rights abuses in Sierra Leone. The mechanism is likely to be a special court combining Sierra Leonean and international jurists. Still, major differences remain about the exact powers of the court -- the scope of its jurisdiction, the extent of international participation, and the degree of respect to give the "Lome amnesty." The resolution of these issues will dramatically affect the court's ability to establish the rule of law and deter further atrocities.

The first dispute is over whom the court will prosecute. Certainly the worst offenders have been Mr. Sankoh and his brutal RUF. But other militia in the country have also committed atrocities against civilians and must be brought to justice. These include former members of the Sierra Leone Army, a group known as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and the civilian defense forces militia, the most powerful of which is the Kamajors. But these groups are currently allied with the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and provide an important part of its defense. The Security Council, hoping to subcontract Sierra Leone's defense at least in part to these murderous allies, has been reluctant to pursue their crimes. That is dangerously short-sighted and wrong.

To begin with, an internationally sponsored court will have little credibility if its prosecutions are limited to current government enemies. That would compromise the basic principle that justice should be applied to everyone within a court's jurisdiction. Instead, the Security Council should insist on a court that is empowered to prosecute anyone in Sierra Leone who directs or oversees specified offenses, such as war crimes or crimes against humanity, regardless of their current political allegiance.

Moreover, quite apart from its legitimacy, such a broadly empowered court would advance peace by helping to deter atrocities by all militia, even current government allies. Sierra Leone has too long a history of shifting alliances and murderous double-crosses to trust that the RUF comprises the sole threat to the security of the Sierra Leonean people. Johnny Koroma, the head of the AFRC militia, led a May 1997 coup against President Kabbah's elected government, while the AFRC and others committed appalling abuses in the January 1999 offensive against Freetown in which thousands lost their lives. Only a court that is capable of prosecuting the worst human rights offenders regardless of their current loyalties can prevent the murderous back-stabbing and about-faces that make up so much of Sierra Leone's recent and sad history.

Second, despite the commendable desire to help build the Sierra Leonean justice system, the U.N.-sponsored court should contain a majority of international jurists. It is understandable that the international community wants to create a tribunal that builds on, and thus helps to strengthen, the Sierra Leonean justice system. Such a hybrid system may leave a more workable legacy within the country, and the informality of a mixed tribunal may allow it to be created more quickly than a purely U.N.-run, bureaucracy-laden institution.

Largely Decimated
But the fact remains that the Sierra Leonean justice system has been largely decimated. A primary international role is essential to resist predictably intense pressure on government-appointed judges and prosecutors to overlook atrocities by militia that are currently allied with the government. Indeed, a court that is seen as subject to influence by the Sierra Leonean government would create a perverse new incentive to continue fighting for power, as a means of securing the prosecutorial levers that might guarantee impunity from prosecution.

Finally, the court must be empowered to ignore the Lome amnesty, which purported to pardon atrocities committed before July 1999, when many of the worst human rights crimes were committed. The amnesty was an affront to international law and the Sierra Leonean people that never should have been granted in the first place. Moreover, to force a prosecutor to ignore these earlier crimes would compel him to fight for justice with one hand tied behind his back -- particularly in Sierra Leone, where collecting evidence is so dangerous.

The Security Council has been reluctant to abandon the Lome amnesty because of hope that life might still be breathed into the Lome peace accord -- that peace might still be bought on the cheap. But that pipe dream is no reason to perpetuate the dangerous lesson of Lome that the U.N. would rather ignore the atrocities of the past than make the commitment of troops and resources to secure peace. Half-hearted shortcuts will no longer do.