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The Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation in the Mano River Union

Memorandum for the United Nations “Arria Formula” Meeting

After ten years, the devastating civil war in Sierra Leone appears to be over. The signs of hope are many: over 47,000 combatants have been demobilized; thousands of refugees are returning home; civilians abducted from their villages during rebel attacks are being reunited with their families; the government revenue from Sierra Leone's vast diamond wealth has gone up; and on May 14, Sierra Leoneans went to the polls to elect their president and parliamentarians.

While the election brings much needed peace and security to Sierra Leone, serious human rights issues remain. After a decade of civil war, the state institutions and economy have been destroyed, and a culture of violence, corruption, and impunity has taken root.

The transition period, however, provides a rare opportunity to develop new state institutions with strong human rights components integrated into their structure, and to create mechanisms that can secure respect for human rights throughout the society. In particular, two transitional justice mechanisms - the Special Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - will play an important role in breaking the cycle of impunity.

In addition to the rebuilding process within the country, it is important to recognize that long-term prospects for peace in Sierra Leone are dependent on developments in the sub region.

As Sierra Leone's brutal conflict comes to an end, violence and insecurity are rapidly escalating in Liberia. War crimes and serious human rights abuses are being committed by both Liberian government forces and rebels from the LURD, including executions, rape, abductions, and looting and burning of villages.

In the face of renewed rebel action, the government of Charles Taylor has become increasingly intolerant of dissent. Since imposing a state of emergency in February, the government has intensified its harassment of civil society groups and the independent media. The government is also remilitarizing the society by remobilizing ex-combatants and allowing the proliferation of militia groups.

The escalating conflict and growing lawlessness in Liberia has the potential to upturn the fragile peace in Sierra Leone. Fighters from all sides are moving across the Sierra Leonean/Liberia border: Hundreds of Sierra Leonean ex-combatants are crossing into Liberia to fight as mercenaries. Liberian government troops and LURD rebel soldiers are crossing into Sierra Leone to loot or escape fighting, and, in a few cases, to abduct people for forced labor. Liberian army deserters are also to be found on the Sierra Leone side of the border, where they could present an additional security threat. LURD forces operating from Sierra Leone are clandestinely recruiting and operating a supply line along the border. There appears to be no consistent policy on the part of either the Sierra Leonean government or the UNAMSIL peacekeepers on how to address this problem.

In view of the close links between the Guinean government and the LURD rebel forces in Liberia, the participation of Guinean troops in UNAMSIL should also give cause for concern. The Guinea contingent of UNAMSIL is currently deployed at the Sierra Leone/Liberia border, raising fears that this area too could become a base of operations for the LURD. At a minimum, these Guinea battalions removed from the border where the likelihood of their involvement in Liberian rebel support or refugee intimidation is higher. Ideally, they should be replaced completely.

The developing crisis in Liberia, if unchecked and unresolved, threatens to erode the fragile peace and stability so painstakingly established in Sierra Leone, and may likely destabilize Guinea and the wider region. This a dire prospect indeed for the people of a region that has already endured so much war, abuse and human suffering for more than a decade.

The Role of the U.N. Security Council

It is imperative therefore that the international community remain engaged in efforts to establish conditions for a sustainable peace, and the protection of human rights, in all three countries in the sub region.

All the Mano River Union governments should be called on to: (1) End cross-border attacks and illicit weapons flows; (2) Cease support for armed rebel activity; (3) Respect the rule of law and human rights; (4) Prevent and punish war crimes and other human rights abuses; and to (5) Create state institutions that are transparent and accountable, particularly in the state security apparatus.

To date, the U.N. Security Council has played an active and important role in attempting to end Liberia's role in the arms-for-diamonds trade in the sub region, through arms embargos and other sanctions. Your involvement has certainly contributed to the emerging peace that we see in Sierra Leone today.

These efforts should continue to be strengthened, including through the creation of better mechanisms to ensure compliance with such sanctions. For example, the illicit flow of arms to Liberia continues. U.N. investigators have documented a network of arms brokers and transport companies in Slovakia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan that arrange illegal weapons purchases. In 1999 and 2000, respectively, Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire knowingly provided false cover for arms shipments destined to Liberia. Evidence strongly suggests that a plane that crashed outside Monrovia in February 2002 carried illegal military cargo for the Taylor government. The flight was one of three suspicious flights from Chad, using planes fraudulently registered in Moldova and filing false flight plans. U.N. investigators were blocked from investigating the crash.

Liberia's illicit arms purchases are often financed through payments not accounted for in the budget. For example, income reportedly received by the United States-based Liberian International Shipping and Corporate Registry was twice used to pay for Liberia's arms purchases. Once they refused to engage in the practice, other off-budget outlays of maritime funds were utilized. U.N. investigations also established that, in 1999, a timber company paid for an illegal arms shipment. Human Rights Watch welcomes the U.N. Security Council's recent call for an audit of Liberia's shipping and timber revenue to ensure that the funds are not misused.

We strongly urge you to build on these efforts by adopting a comprehensive sub-regional approach and taking the following steps:

  • Strengthen mechanisms to ensure compliance with U.N. sanctions;
  • Investigate and end Guinea's support for the Liberian rebels and its destabilization of Liberia;
  • Take greater steps to monitor and prevent armed cross-border activity along the shared borders between Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. In that regard, mandate the placement of international military observers and human rights monitors along the shared borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Additionally, the Security Council should advocate for the replacement of the Guinean UNAMSIL contingent in Sierra Leone from the border area where the likelihood of their involvement in Liberian rebel support and/or refugee intimidation is higher.

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