Dear Ministers:

I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch in connection with the British intervention in Sierra Leone. First, we would like to recognize and welcome the contribution that British forces have made to securing the protection of civilians in Freetown and enabling the ongoing reinforcement of U.N. troops.

However, we also wish to highlight our concerns regarding the announcement that the United Kingdom will supply the Sierra Leonean government with light weapons and ammunition. Human Rights Watch is very concerned that British-supplied weapons may be made available to government-allied groups known to have committed gross human rights abuse. We are also gravely concerned about recent credible reports that child soldiers are being re-recruited and may as such be the recipients of some of these arms. While we recognize that the government of President Kabbah must take up its responsibility to secure Freetown and eventually the entire country, we call on you to ensure that no military equipment provided to the Sierra Leonean government is made available, directly or indirectly, to pro-government forces who are known to have frequently committed serious human rights abuses, or to child soldiers. Abusive government allies include the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council/ex-Sierra Leone army (AFRC/ex-SLA) and the Civilian Defense Forces (CDF). Under the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1171 (1998) lifting the arms embargo on the government of Sierra Leone, an international arms embargo remained in place on all non-governmental forces in the country.  

The horrific abuses committed by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) are well known, but Human Rights Watch has also established the abysmal human rights record of pro-government forces. Before it switched sides to support the government, the AFRC/ex-SLA was allied with the RUF and was responsible for many widespread atrocities. In 1998, for example, AFRC/ex-SLA soldiers participated in a campaign of mass mutilation, rape, and killing that continued into the January 1999 rebel occupation of Freetown in which the AFRC/ex-SLA participated in large numbers. The CDF militias who have fought on the government's behalf have also committed gross abuses, though to a lesser extent. For example, CDF forces have been responsible for indiscriminate killings, summary executions, and torture. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that the abusive behavior of these groups has improved. Last week Human Rights Watch made public credible allegations that government-allied troops were torturing and executing suspected members of the RUF. This week it was reported that pro-government forces, as well as the RUF, are re-recruiting demobilized child soldiers. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his May 19 report on the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone, reported that UNAMSIL human rights officers had observed that up to twenty-five percent of soldiers fighting with the CDF, AFRC/ex-SLA and Sierra Leone Army were under the age of eighteen, and some freely admitted to being between ages seven and fourteen.

Currently, the government of Sierra Leone is relying on the AFRC/ex-SLA and the CDFs to help the Sierra Leonean army combat the RUF. Under these circumstances, any weapons provided to the government risk being handed out to irregular, undisciplined, and unaccountable fighters. In fact, an unconfirmed May 22 report in The Independent suggested that the Sierra Leonean government already had begun to re-arm irregular forces. This raises the possibility that the planned provision of arms from the United Kingdom will enable the Sierra Leonean government to distribute weapons from its own stocks to the AFRC/ex-SLA and the CDF, especially as it has been reported that as many as 10,000 British weapons already in Freetown may be made available to the Sierra Leonean government.

We welcome the U.K. government's statement yesterday that it will remind the government of Sierra Leone of its commitment, made last year when the weapons were shipped to Freetown as part of a planned training program for the new army, that "U.K.-supplied weapons would be used only by regular soldiers and in accordance with international law," but we feel that this is insufficient to address the very real danger that British-supplied weapons could be used by abusive armed groups in Sierra Leone or could free up other weapons to be provided by the government itself.

Instead, we urge you to demand explicit guarantees from the Sierra Leonean government that it will not provide any military equipment, either directly or indirectly, to the AFRC/ex-SLA or CDF. Moreover, we call on you to put in place mechanisms to monitor the distribution and use of arms and ammunition, to ensure that no weapons transfers to abusive pro-government forces or to forces that are not under effective governmental control take place, whether or not these would violate the U.N. arms embargo. As you may be aware, the U.N. arms embargo resolution cited above required the government of Sierra Leone to mark and register all imported weapons, and to notify the U.N. of such imports. We urge you to build on that requirement by demanding that the Sierra Leonean government also register to whom weapons are distributed. We further recommend that U.K. government representatives be charged with supervising this process and periodically reporting on any irregularities, including allegations of abuses by the recipients of weapons, to the U.K. government and the United Nations. We also call on the U.K. government to press the government of Sierra Leone to ensure that its armed forces comply with international human rights standards and, importantly, are held accountable for any abuses.

In addition, we urge you to make any further military assistance conditional on a commitment by the Sierra Leonean government that children will neither be recruited nor used as soldiers by pro-government forces. In 1999, Human Rights Watch commended the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its agreement with the Government of Sierra Leone, conditioning a £10 million assistance package on Sierra Leone's commitment that children would not be used by the Sierra Leone Armed Forces or the Civil Defense Forces and that the Sierra Leonean government would help facilitate the demobilization and rehabilitation of former child soldiers. Unfortunately, the May 24 statement by the prime ministers's office that the U.K. would seek to ensure that its arms are not used by child soldiers falls far short of last year's agreement. Particularly in light of recent reports regarding the re-recruitment of child soldiers by both RUF and pro-government forces, we urge you to once again make material assistance conditional upon adequate safeguards to prevent the recruitment of children as soldiers.