Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 - Sierra Leone

Human Rights Developments

The Lome Peace Accord signed on July 7, l999 between the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the government of Sierra Leone committed the rebels to lay down their arms in exchange for representation in a new government. It also included a controversial general amnesty for all crimes committed during the war. Despite hopes that the peace process would bring an end to the atrocities that characterized this brutal nine-year war, abuses continued unabated.

The nine months following the signing of the agreement brought about a relative reduction in abuses and few cases of the RUF signature atrocity – limb amputation – were documented. However, sexual assault against women and girls continued unabated. The collapse of the peace process in May, after the capture of some five hundred United Nations peacekeepers serving with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), reversed this trend. Renewed conflict ushered in increases in human rights abuses by the RUF and rebel militias, including limb amputation, and a disturbing intensification of abuses by pro-government forces.

The success of the peace process had been measured by enrollment in the cornerstone Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program, with little respect for human rights and the establishment of the rule of law. The collapse of the peace process brought about a reassessment of the provision for a general amnesty in the Lome Accord and mobilized national and international support for a war crimes tribunal.

Rebel United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council/ex-Sierra Leonean Army (AFRC/ex-SLA)

In the months following the signing of the accord, the overwhelming majority of cease-fire violations registered by UNAMSIL were rebel attacks against civilians.

Rebel combatants filtering back into the capital, Freetown, committed extortion, car theft, robberies, and other acts of lawlessness. The authorities demonstrated a reluctance to investigate or to arrest rebels responsible for such crimes, in part for fear that such arrests might threaten rebel cooperation with the DDR program.

Following the resumption of hostilities in May, RUF forces intensified their attacks on civilians. There were frequent reports of RUF abuses including murder, widespread rape, limb amputation, forced labor, abduction, and looting. Most of these attacks occurred in the context of raids for food. There were several cases of limb amputation, even of women, elderly, and children as young as twelve. Within the areas under their control, the RUF continued to use intimidation to impose a "taxation" system, extorting food and money from civilians.

When indiscriminate attacks by a government helicopter gunship provoked a mass exodus of civilians from areas under RUF control, the RUF responded by becoming particularly brutal, setting off a further exodus of civilians from RUF areas. There were also many cases of forced labor within the diamond mining areas of Kono, and the RUF reportedly murdered civilians accused of mining without its approval. On May 8, armed men inside the home of RUF leader Foday Sankoh opened fire on a crowd of civilian demonstrators, killing nineteen.

Starting in May, the RUF began conscripting many children and adolescents, including some girls, and scores of civilians had the letters RUF carved into them with knives or razors. In May, RUF commanders in Makeni forced some forty demobilized child soldiers living within an interim care center to rejoin the RUF's ranks. Fear of conscription contributed to the flight of thousands of civilians from rebel-held areas. The RUF frequently used "buying back" of conscripted youth by family members as another tactic for extorting money.

Members of the AFRC/ex-SLA based around the Occra Hills (forty miles from Freetown) also imposed a reign of terror on villagers within Port Loko and Masiaka districts. These soldiers carried out rape, murder, torture, abduction, massive looting, forced labor, and indiscriminate ambushes along a major highway. The AFRC/ex-SLA murdered numerous civilians for not having enough money, for being unable to carry looted items, or for refusing to have sexual relations with a combatant. This violence forced thousands of villagers into camps for the internally displaced. The Sierra Leonean Government, Economic Community Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), and UNAMSIL forces madevery few efforts to actively pursue the rebels or to protect the civilian population. The attacks only ended in September after an operation by British paratroopers to free British and Sierra Leonean soldiers previously taken hostage by the AFRC/ex-SLA.

Thousands of abducted prisoners continued to be held in rebel areas. Before the collapse of the peace process, the AFRC/ex-SLA released several small groups of prisoners, but continued to abduct others. At this writing, some four thousand children registered by UNICEF as missing during the war had yet to be located. The vast majority were presumed to have been abducted by the RUF.

Government Forces

The collapse of the accord brought about a marked increase in human rights abuses by government forces. These included rape, extortion, the Sierra Leonean Army's indiscriminate use of a helicopter gunship, and the killing of RUF prisoners by members of the Civil Defense Force (CDF) militias, the largest and most powerful of which were the Kamajors.

The Sierra Leonean government caused massive civilian casualties and displacement through helicopter gunship attacks during May and June against rebel strongholds in Makeni, Magburaka, and Kambia. The indiscriminate use of the gunship against market places caused at least thirty civilians deaths.

The tribally based CDF militia became considerably less disciplined. Extortion and brutality by CDF militiamen at checkpoints became routine. Violence against women had been very uncommon among CDF militias until recently, primarily because of the belief that a warrior's power was dependent upon sexual abstinence. However, numerous cases of sexual assault were documented this year, including gang rape by Kamajor militiamen and commanders. There were several cases of CDF militias ransacking villages and commandeering cars from civilians and aid agencies. There were numerous reports of CDF militias torturing and killing suspected RUF rebels. CDF militiamen routinely intimidated and threatened policemen attempting to enforce the rule of law. In Kenema in September the police chief was badly beaten by Kamajors protesting the arrest of one of their members on drug charges.

Following the May crisis, the government of Sierra Leone detained hundreds of suspected rebels and their collaborators under the 1991 State of Emergency Act. The names of only 121 of them were later made public by the government, as required under the act. Several hundred more were held illegally, including at least thirteen children. In August, 173 detainees were released as a gesture of good will toward the RUF, while ninety-two remained in custody. The government had yet to authorize the International Committee for the Red Cross to work within jails and detention facilities.

Women

While there was a relative reduction in most classes of gross human rights abuses in the months following the Lome Accord, sexual assault against women and girls, particularly by members of the RUF and AFRC/ex-SLA, continued unabated. There were numerous cases of rape of children as young as ten. Commanders from all government and rebel factions were involved in perpetrating and ordering sexual abuse, and the authorities made little effort to protect women.

Children

Children continue to be subjected to all forms of violence and be recruited as combatants by both rebel forces and to a lesser extent the CDF. Several children were murdered by the RUF and at least two suffered limb amputations. Numerous girls, as young as ten, were subjected to sexual abuse both in Sierra Leone and as refugees in Guinea. Children were abducted from villages and off of buses by rebel forces, and used as forced labor to carry looted goods, as sexual slaves for male combatants, and for work in the diamond mines. Over 1,700 child combatants were demobilized before the collapse of the peace process, but from the May collapse to this date, only 115 had been registered. While some eight hundred children were reunified with their families between January and August, some four thousand children were still registered as missing (most abducted by rebel forces).

Internally Displaced People and Refugees

Following the May crisis, both RUF abuses and the indiscriminate use of the government helicopter gunship caused a mass exodus of some 330,000 civilians from behind rebel lines. Of these, 15,000 fled across the border to Guinea. Once out of RUF territory, civilians were often captured and accused of being rebel sympathizers by government militias which sometimes beat them, extorted money, and murdered them. Following a government offensive in the Kono region in August, thousands of civilians attempting to flee into Guinea were denied entry. After pressure from UNHCR, some women, children and elderly refugees were allowed to enter into Guinea. In September, some five thousand Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea were rounded up and detained in response to cross-border attacks into Guinea from Sierra Leone and Liberia. There were reports of several deaths, widespread rape, and massive looting during the attacks. Some 380,000 refugees in Guinea continued to be subject to frequent intimidation by the Guinean military and civilian militias.

Humanitarian Workers and Journalists

Aid workers and their beneficiaries came under frequent attack by the RUF and to a lesser extent by pro-government militias. Following the crisis in early May, aid workers were forced to withdraw from RUF-held areas and had access to less than half of the country. The RUF attacked and looted feeding centers, threatened local and expatriate doctors with death, abducted aid workers, and, in one case, raped malnourished beneficiaries.

Rebel forces killed one Sierra Leonean and two foreign reporters in May. The Sierra Leonean was shot on May 8 when RUF combatants inside the house of leader Foday Sankoh opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, and two foreign reporters were killed on May 27 in a rebel ambush on their convoy near Rogberi Junction. It was not known if they were targeted for being journalists or because Sierra Leonean soldiers accompanied them. An editor from a local paper was detained in May after being accused of being an RUF collaborator. Several other journalists reported being beaten or detained.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) mandated to be established within ninety days of the signing of the Lome Peace Accord had yet to be set up. Following the May crisis, activity toward establishing the TRC was officially frozen by the U.N. Office of Human Rights. U.N. and other organizations struggled to determine whether the TRC was still relevant following the resumption of hostilities, and if so, what its relationship would be with the proposed Special Court.

In July 1999, the special representative of the secretary-general added a reservation to the Lome Accord, stating that the U.N. did not recognize amnesty insofar as it applied to crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Nevertheless, the U.N. made no effort to pursue justice for such crimes until the hostage crisis in May. The crisis and the apprehension of Foday Sankoh put justice squarely on the international agenda. In June, the Sierra Leonean government asked for U.N. assistance to establish a court in Sierra Leone with a mix of local and foreign prosecutors and judges. The RUF remained the target, and there were concerted efforts to retain the Lome amnesty for other parties to the conflict.

The U.S. eventually took the lead in the Security Council and drafted a proposal for a special court for Sierra Leone that would not be an organ of the Security Council, and would thus avoid time-consuming U.N. bureaucracy. On August 14, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1315, authorizing the secretary-general to enter into negotiations with the government to establish an independent, special court to bring perpetrators of the most serious violations of international humanitarian law to justice. On October 5, the secretary-general submitted a report with recommendations and proposals for the establishment of the special court, which was under consideration by the Security Council. The report proposed the court be a hybrid using both international and Sierra Leonean law, judges and prosecutors. It also included a controversial proposal to put child soldiers between fifteen and eighteen years of age on trial and proposed that the jurisdiction should extend back to November 30, l996, the date of Sierra Leone's first peace agreement.

Treaties

This year, Sierra Leone ratified the Rome Statute to establish an International Criminal Court and enacted legislation to make the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Protocols a part of Sierra Leonean law.

Defending Human Rights

Most of the some twenty human rights organizations that operated in Sierra Leone worked exclusively in the capital Freetown and lacked proper funding, expertise, and institutional support. In the months following the signing of the Lome Peace Accord, these groups did very little monitoring of continuing human rights abuses and instead focused on human rights education for the public.

After the May crisis, these groups became somewhat more vocal and active in both monitoring and advocacy, and several groups called for the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal.

The formation of an autonomous, quasi-judicial national Human Rights Commission as provided for in the Lome Accord made only limited progress. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a consultant to assist the government in shaping and drafting the legislation for the commission, but Parliament had yet to consider a draft. UNAMSIL blamed the lack of progress on the breakdown in the peace process and lack of personnel within its own human rights section.

Meanwhile, the preexisting governmental body, the National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights (NCDHR), effectively did no monitoring, documentation of human rights violations, or advocacy, and neglected to take a public stand on the war crimes tribunal.

The Role of the International Community

The RUF's capture of U.N. peacekeepers and subsequent resumption of hostilities unleashed a wave of international condemnation against the RUF for having precipitated the collapse of the peace process. However, frequent violations that gave rise to the crisis had gone largely ignored for months by key members of the international community who did more to appease rebel leaders than confront them.

The moral guarantors of the Lome Accord: the U.N., OAU, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Government of Togo, all failed to condemn or apply requisite pressure on the RUF and ex-SLA/AFRC for their repeated attempts to delay and frustrate the peace process, for their continued acts of lawlessness and human rights violations against civilians.

Following the resumption of hostilities, most international actors acknowledged the importance of using military force to disarm the RUF, which occupied over 60 percent of the country. However, members of the international community demonstrated little willingness to do so themselves. With the U.N. unwilling to stiffen its mandate from peacekeeping to peacemaking, and without any international body willing to commit troops, the task of pressuring the RUF back to the negotiating table was left to the under funded, under-trained, and poorly led Sierra Leonean Army.

The collapse of the peace process forced most key members of the international community to reassess their respective policies toward Sierra Leone, but military objectives remained clearer than political goals. The collapse of the peace process effectively rendered obsolete most key provisions of the Lome Accord, including disarmament, the amnesty, the transformation of the RUF into a political party, and the inclusion of the RUF and AFRC in the government. Despite this, the U.N., U.S. and U.K. insisted that the Lome Accord must form the basis for any future peace.

Attacks on Guinean villages by RUF and Liberian forces that began in September, highlighted fears that the war could spread beyond Sierra Leone's borders.

United Nations

In May, the killing of at least ten and capture of some five hundred United Nations peacekeepers precipitated a collapse of the Sierra Leonean peace process, and forced the United Nations to reassess the viability of the l999 Lome Peace Accord, the efficacy of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, and the future of U.N. peacekeeping operations in Africa.

Prior to May, the RUF and rebel factions repeatedly delayed and frustrated the implementation of the peace process, especially after UNAMSIL attempted to deploy into the diamond-producing areas.

Contributing countries demonstrated minimal political will to change the mandate from peacekeeping to peace-enforcing. Instead, the Security Council responded to UNAMSIL's weaknesses by mandating successive increases in troop strength: from the original 6,000 in October 1999, to 11,000 in February (Resolution. 1289), to 13,000 in May (Resolution 1299). The secretary-general's sixth report on UNAMSIL recommended a further increase in troop strength to 20,500.

Internal divisions within the military and political leadership of the mission worsened the crisis. In his July 5 report on UNAMSIL, Kofi Annan said there had been "a serious lack of cohesion within the Mission." In part due to these problems, contributing countries were divided on whether or not to support the mission, the largest and most expensive in the world, at a projected $782 million for 2000-2001.

In response to problems within UNAMSIL and growing insecurity within the region, an eleven-member Security Council delegation visited Sierra Leone and four other West African countries in October. Their report reaffirmed the need to maintain military pressure on the RUF, yet failed to resolve differences over the need for a more aggressive mandate. On several occasions, UNAMSIL failed to aggressively interpret the part of their mandate that allowed for the protection of civilians "under threat of imminent physical violence." In June, Kenyan UNAMSIL troops abandoned the northern town of Kabala while under attack by the RUF. Jordanian UNAMSIL troops failed to adequately secure the strategic Freetown-to-Mile 91 highway from frequent attacks and ambushes on civilian vehicles by the AFRC/ex-SLA. Civilians described being robbed or abducted by the militias within view of the peacekeepers.

The human rights section under the UNAMSIL mission was mandated in January to have fourteen human rights monitors, but it never operated with more than nine and functioned without a permanent chief. They conducted regular and thorough monitoring missions but put out few press releases and lacked a regular channel for disseminating information.

On July 5, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1306, which imposed an eighteen-month ban on the trade in rough diamonds from Sierra Leone that did not have a government certificate, in a bid to prevent the RUF from funding its war. It also mandated setting up a five-person panel of experts to look into possible violations of sanctions and the link between the trade in diamonds and arms. The panel, which did several fact-finding missions to the region, was to present its findings by October 31.

ECOWAS and ECOMOG

In the first several months of 2000, ECOWAS, despite its position as one of the moral guarantors of the Lome Accord, did little to pressure the RUF to comply with its provisions. ECOWAS nations were openly dissatisfied with the lack of U.N. financial support for ECOMOG troops in Sierra Leone, and with the U.N. decision to deploy U.N. peacekeepers to facilitate the implementation of the accord instead of funding ECOMOG troops.

Following the collapse of the peace process, ECOWAS heads of state directly blamed and condemned the RUF and, in an emergency summit in Nigeria on May 10, announced their decision to use every means possible to defend Sierra Leone's government. They followed this up on May 29 by endorsing a proposal made by ECOWAS defense ministers and chiefs of staff to send an additional three thousand troops to Sierra Leone, on the condition that the United Nations would pick up the cost. At this writing, ECOWAS troops, mostly from Nigeria, were being trained by the United States. ECOWAS also called for UNAMSIL's mandate to be changed from peacekeeping to peace enforcement and called for the force to be headed by a West African.

Organization of African Unity

In May, the secretary general of the Organization of African Unity strongly condemned the killing and abduction of U.N. peacekeepers and the resumption of hostilities and backed up an ECOWAS resolution to deploy three thousand ECOMOG troops. In June, OAU Secretary General Salim Ahmed Salim appointed South African Ambassador to Ethiopia Kingsley Mamabolo as his special envoy to Sierra Leone. In July, a mini-summit on Sierra Leone was held during the OAU summit in Lome, Togo, between the OAU, ECOWAS, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In August, OAU Secretary General Salim visited Sierra Leone and donated U.S.$250,000 to the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Rearmament program and other institutions.

The European Union, United States, and United Kingdom

European Union

In May, the European Union issued a declaration condemning the RUF for attacks on UNAMSIL personnel and the violation of the Lome Accord. A May 23 resolution by the European Parliament condemned the "assumed participation of Burkina Faso, Liberia and Togo," in support for the RUF and their involvement in illicit diamond smuggling. In June, the E.U. expressed its concern that continued violations of arms embargoes in Sierra Leone and Angola were contributing to the continuation of these conflicts. Also in June, E.U. foreign ministers suspended aid to Liberia because of its support for the RUF rebels. In September, the E.U. general affairs council reaffirmed its support for the Lome Accord as the basis for future peace in Sierra Leone, and expressed its willingness to help the United Nations and Sierra Leonean government set up a special tribunal.

Since 1995, the European Commission had given Sierra Leone more than 94 million euros (U.S. $80 million) for development and rehabilitation projects over five years. Since the beginning of the year, an additional 12 million euro (U.S. $l0 million) was administered through the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) for emergency humanitarian assistance in Sierra Leone, and for Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea.

United Kingdom and United States

The United Kingdom and United States continued to play a pivotal role in political and military developments in Sierra Leone. The collapse of the peace process prompted both countries to intensify their military engagement with and on behalf of Sierra Leone, while political issues were effectively put on hold.

United Kingdom

When Freetown, the capital, was briefly threatened by the RUF in May, the U.K. deployed over five thousand military personnel, including six hundred ground troops, to secure key strategic areas, and to advise and support both UNAMSIL and the Sierra Leonean Army. Although the bulk of U.K. forces were withdrawn by mid-June, two hundred soldiers remained in the country in order to strengthen a training team already involved in restructuring the Sierra Leonean Army before the May crisis. A further sixty advisers (to increase to ninety) were mostly deployed within the Sierra Leonean Defense Headquarters, and played a key role in advising and directing military operations.

During a June 8 visit, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook acknowledged that Britain was making a long-term commitment to Sierra Leone, and on October 10, further military assistance, including a hundred additional trainers, equipment for the Sierra Leone Army, an offer to provide officers to fill staff appointments at UNAMSIL headquarters, and an offer to provide a rapid reaction force of up to five thousand troops was announced.

After the renegade "Westside Boys" rebel faction took eleven British soldiers hostage from the training team on August 25, British forces were deployed and mounted an operation to free them. During the September 10 operation, one British soldier and some twenty-five Westside Boys were killed.

U.K. assistance to Sierra Leone since March 1998 was over GBP 70 million, including the funding of demobilization camps and humanitarian assistance. In coordination with the commonwealth secretariat, the U.K. provided funds for training and administration of the Sierra Leonean police, including the provision of the inspector general.

United States

Until the hostage crisis in May, U.S. policy toward Sierra Leone failed to attract high-level attention within the administration. Most U.S. officials continued to defend the amnesty under Lome, despite the February report by David Scheffer, ambassador at large for war crimes issues, who reported the ongoing atrocities and abuses, and acknowledged the inadequacy of mechanisms for accountability.

U.S. policy subsequently became more active. The U.S. worked to get the United Nations behind a more robust peacekeeping response to the crisis, and played a key role in moving the Security Council and the Sierra Leonean government toward the creation of a special court for Sierra Leone. During a July visit by Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering to West Africa, and in the testimony of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke before the Security Council hearings on diamonds in Sierra Leone, the U.S. publicly accused Liberia and Burkina Faso of supporting the RUF, and threatened sanctions against them.

In August, the U.S. launched a substantial operation to train and equip up to seven West African battalions, largely Nigerian, for duty with UNAMSIL. The administration stated that all participating troops would be vetted in accordance with U.S. law, which prohibits assistance to military units that have been responsible for serious human rights abuses.

In October, the U.S. hardened its position towards Liberia for its continued support of the RUF by imposing a visa ban on Taylor and other Liberian officials, their families, and close supporters.

The U.S.'s total humanitarian and emergency contribution in 2000, including grants to NGOs and aid agencies, was U.S. $55 million. In July the U.S. announced a $20 million aid package for training Nigerian and Ghanaian troops to strengthen the U.N. effort in Sierra Leone.

Comments:
This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.