Current events in Sierra Leone show the urgent need for the Security Council to establish a criminal process to bring to justice gross abusers of human rights; to strengthen the United Nations mandate and capacity in that country to protect civilians; and to address violations of the U.N. arms embargo against Sierra Leonean rebels.

An International Criminal Tribunal

Human Rights Watch calls on the Security Council to establish immediately an International Criminal Tribunal for Sierra Leone.

In July 1999, when the Lomé Accord was signed, Human Rights Watch denounced its blanket amnesty for the horrendous abuses that had been committed against the Sierra Leonean people. "Time and again, the United Nations' experience has shown that peace accords built on impunity are shaky and do not hold," we wrote to the Secretary-General. In an historic move, the U.N. added a reservation to its acceptance of the Lomé accord, stating that it did not recognize the amnesty insofar as it purported to apply to crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in a resolution passed last month, confirmed this approach and stated: "the United Nations holds the understanding that the amnesty provisions of the [Lomé] Agreement shall not apply to international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, and affirms that all persons who commit or authorize serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law at any time are individually responsible and accountable for those violations and that the international community will exert every effort to bring those responsible to justice."

The Security Council should use the current crisis and the apprehension of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh to begin the overdue process of holding RUF leaders and others accountable for the atrocities they have committed.

The Council should authorize immediately and establish as soon as possible an International Criminal Tribunal for Sierra Leone with jurisdiction over all crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and others serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed at least since March 1991, when the RUF launched a rebellion to overthrow the Sierra Leonean government.

The Council should reconfirm explicitly that the purported Lomé amnesty does not apply to crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law regardless of when these crimes were committed.

Because of the inevitable time required to establish an international criminal tribunal, the Council should immediately send investigators to Sierra Leone to collect evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed both before and after the Lomé Accord, in anticipation of its use by the International Criminal Tribunal for Sierra Leone and other competent courts that respect international fair-trial standards. Beginning this process of gathering evidence now is essential for maximizing the potential of the tribunal to deter further atrocities.

A New U.N. Mandate and the Means to Uphold It

Given the resumption of fighting, the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone (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 currently offering them any protection.

The Security Council should urgently 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.

Tightening the Arms Embargo

Human Rights Watch has been concerned that the arms embargo and other sanctions against rebel forces (as authorized by Resolutions 1132 and 1171) have not been enforced. 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."

Human Rights Watch calls on the Security Council to take firm measures as soon as conditions permit to stop the RUF from replenishing its military supplies and thus preparing itself for further violence and grave human rights abuses. In particular, we urge the U.N. to:

  • Rigorously enforce the arms embargo imposed on the RUF, including by deploying adequately trained, well-equipped U.N. forces to monitor borders (and, in particular, the border with Liberia), roads, and airstrips in rebel-controlled areas and halt any weapons shipments they detect.
  • Order an official inquiry into illegal arms flows to the RUF rebels, modeled after the U.N. International Commission of Inquiry (Rwanda), also known as UNICOI, and drawing on the recent experience of the U.N. committee that investigated sanctions-busting in Angola. This inquiry should be specifically mandated to investigate the trade in diamonds from rebel-held areas in Sierra Leone, with a view to making recommendations to stop the rebels from using the proceeds of this conflict.

We thank you for your kind attention to these important issues.


Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director for Africa

Joanna Weschler
U.N. Representative