HRW – Human Rights Watch (Autor)
Human Rights Developments
In early February, troops of the Economic Community of West African States Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) ousted the government of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from Freetown. This ended their nine-month rule, characterized by widespread human rights abuses and a complete breakdown of the rule of law. For the past seven years a vicious civil war has engulfed Sierra Leone, characterized by atrocities against civilians, often committed by the RUF, a rebel group formed in 1991 with support from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
Upon taking power on May 25, 1997, the AFRC suspended the constitution, banned political parties and public meetings, and announced rule by military decree. The ARFC, created by a group of senior military officers, soon joined forces with the RUF. During their joint rule, many judges, lawyers, and police fled the country, causing a total collapse of the judicial system. The AFRC/RUF government arbitrarily arrested and detained its suspected opponents and critics, including students, journalists and human rights advocates, causing thousands to seek asylum.
On March 10, the Nigerian-led ECOMOG reinstated President Tejan Kabbah, first elected in March of 1996, who subsequently declared a state of emergency. After losing political power, the AFRC/RUF alliance engaged in a war of terror against civilians, committing widespread and egregious atrocities in an attempt to regain power. Between February and June 1998 alone, its members raped, deliberately mutilated, or killed outright thousands of Sierra Leonean civilians. The AFRC/RUF abducted men, women and children, probably numbering in the thousands, for use as combatants, forced laborers, or sexual slaves. Women were actively targeted through sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery. In addition to various forms of physical abuse, innumerable civilians suffered psychological trauma from the rebels’ choice of tactics and extreme cruelty—like the severing of limbs—to compound the horror of their attacks.
Civilian Defense Forces (CDFs), civilian militias who supported the Kabbah government, also committed numerous abuses, including indiscriminate killings and torture, but on a significantly smaller scale than those carried out by the AFRC/RUF. The CDFs were created in order to provide local security and targeted for abuse those they claimed were AFRC/RUF combatants or their supporters. The largest and most powerful of the CDFs, the Kamajors, were responsible for the majority of abuses committed by those fighting on behalf of the Kabbah government. In addition to killings and torture, Kamajors also obstructed humanitarian assistance and extorted money or other payment at roadblocks.
Children were victims of gross violations of human rights committed by both sides to the conflict. The AFRC/RUF abducted an unknown number of children—probably in the thousands—for use as laborers, fighters, and in the case of girls, sexual prisoners. Many girls were forced to work for the AFRC/RUF combatants until they reached sexual maturity, when they would be assigned to a fighter as a “wife.” There were also many child soldiers among the Kamajors, and despite promises by the government to demobilize all combatants under the age of eighteen, the CDFs continued to recruit children at least until July.
The United Nations estimated that over 416,000 Sierra Leoneans fled the fighting as refugees to neighboring Guinea and Liberia or to internally displaced camps. Conditions for both internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees were often severe due to alack of access to camps and poor security conditions. In particular, the close proximity of the camps in Guinea and Liberia to the Sierra Leonean border and the presence of former combatants among the refugee population in Liberia jeopardized humanitarian assistance and protection. Many refugees and IDPs suffered from a host of problems including high levels of malnutrition and disease, as well as occasional attacks from the RUF/AFRC.
The government made repeated gestures in support of human rights, such as its pledge to provide amnesty for child soldiers and intermittent appeals to combatants to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty. In a climate of public hatred for individuals associated with the AFRC/RUF, the Kabbah government initiated legal proceedings against fifty-eight civilians in regular courts and thirty-eight former soldiers before a military court on a range of charges including treason and murder. In hearings in August and October, the High Court of Sierra Leone sentenced to death twenty-seven civilians convicted of treason, including five journalists and a seventy-five-year-old woman. International observers questioned the appropriateness of the treason charges for the journalists, and criticized the lack of a right to appeal sentencing by the military court. On October 19, the government of Sierra Leone executed by firing squad twenty-four of the soldiers who had been sentenced to death one week earlier. The trials constituted the first major test under the Kabbah government of a justice system which lacked basic infrastructure and support. Many of the over 2,000 prisoners in Sierra Leone were held under the 1998 Public Emergency Regulations, introduced by President Kabbah on March 16 and ratified by parliament, which provided for indefinite detention without trial. Prisons were often overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacking in health care and the regular provision of food.
Section 13 of the Public Emergency Regulations declared that “disturbing reports” by the media were punishable offences. On June 24, Minister of Information and Cultural Affairs Dr. Julius Spencer stated that any information regarding the security situation must be approved by ECOMOG before publication. Journalists complained further that taxes had been unjustly imposed upon newspapers in an attempt to limit their ability to publish.
Defending Human Rights
Most of the human rights organizations in Sierra Leone were relatively new and admittedly lacked institutional support and experience. A number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Amnesty International/Sierra Leone, Forum of Conscience, Local Aid-Sierra Leone, the National League for Human Rights and Democracy, Prison Watch, Save Heritage and Rehabilitate the Environment, and Feed the Homeless operated unfettered from Freetown, the capital. Several of these groups were members of a coalition, the National Forum for Human Rights.
Faced with the gross atrocities committed by AFRC/RUF troops, many of the human rights organizations, like the local press, were generally supportive of ECOMOG and the Kabbah government’s human rights record. Lawyers defending individuals from the group of fifty-eight accused of treason and other crimes received threats from a range of sources, including gangs of youths seeking revenge for AFRC/RUF crimes. As of mid-October, no lawyers had offered their services to RUF leader Foday Sankoh, on trial for treason. Threats continued to be made against anyone defending accused AFRC/RUF members or collaborators.
The Role of the International Community
Overshadowed by conflict in Liberia and events elsewhere on the continent, Sierra Leone largely escaped the attention of the international community. Reporting of the atrocities against civilians in Sierra Leone in 1998 increased the awareness of the international community regarding the human rights implications of the crisis. One notable result was an all-day U.N. Special Conference on Sierra Leone chaired by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The execution of twenty-four soldiers accused of treason and other charges drew condemnation from the international community, notably from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and United Kingdom’s Foreign Office Minister of State for Africa, Tony Lloyd.
ECOWAS and ECOMOG
Following the 1997 coup, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) called on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore constitutional order to Sierra Leone. With the failure of diplomatic efforts and the escalation of tension, ECOMOG’s mandate was upgraded from sanction enforcement to actual military intervention, resulting in the ousting of the AFRC/RUF in February. The Nigerian-dominated ECOMOG contingent in Sierra Leone was composed of approximately 9,000 troops, including support battalions from Guinea and Ghana. ECOMOG’s intervention in Sierra Leone came at a time of sharp international criticism of Nigeria’s domestic human rights situation.
While residents of Freetown and Sierra Leonean refugees consistently stated that ECOMOG’s role in ousting the AFRC/RUF and enabling a return to civilian rule was welcome, international humanitarian groups complained that ECOMOG’s shelling of Freetown led to a high number of civilian casualties. Despite these serious allegations, much of the Sierra Leonean press and international community praised ECOMOG, largely due to its military success in Sierra Leone and significant improvements in its conduct after its intervention in Liberia. ECOMOG also evacuated dozens of war victims via helicopter and road, saving many civilian lives. From February through May, however, ECOMOG and Kamajor commandeering of humanitarian vehicles was blatant and frequent.
Misinformation regarding the security situation in Sierra Leone created serious risks for Sierra Leonean refugees, IDPs, and aid workers. ECOMOG, along with Sierra Leonean government and some U.N. officials, downplayed the capacity of the AFRC/RUF and at times portrayed the security conditions in Sierra Leone as safe and returning to normal in many districts. Refugees in Guinea claimed that dozens of refugees had been killed while attempting to return to the Koidu area in April. Their decision to repatriate was made following declarations on international radio claiming the area was under the control of ECOMOG.
ECOMOG’s mandate included the key responsibilities of disarming and demobilizing combatants as well as forming and training the new Sierra Leonean army. ECOMOG commander Maxwell Khobe and President Kabbah stated that the new army would be ethnically and regionally balanced. ECOMOG’s past human rights record in Liberia and subsequent problems, however, underscored the need for UNOMSIL to provide assistance and closely monitor the disarmament, demobilization, and training processes to ensure that the new army would be founded upon principles of respect for international humanitarian law.
On July 13, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a measure to establish the United Nations Observer Mission to Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL), subsuming and expanding the office of the U.N. Special Envoy to Sierra Leone. UNOMSIL’s terms of reference included monitoring and helping ECOMOG with the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Program (DDRP) for combatants; reporting on the security situation; and “monitoring respect for international humanitarian law at disarmament and demobilization sites.” The World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and other donors agreed to fund the DDRP. The U.N. Security Council resolution further mandated UNOMSIL to report on violations of international humanitarian law and human rights in Sierra Leone, and to assist the government with rebuilding institutions of justice. A human rights advisor to the U.N. special representative monitored the human rights situation throughout the country and began to develop technical assistance and education programs to respond to Sierra Leone’s long-term institution-building needs.
United Nations officials repeatedly denounced the human rights situation in Sierra Leone and several agencies sent high-level delegations to the region. On June 18, five senior U.N. officials issued an unprecedented joint statement calling for an end to the atrocities and impunity, and underscoring the need for an International Criminal Court to hold perpetrators accountable for atrocities.
Among other U.N. initiatives for human rights and civic education, UNDP approved a $2.5 million support program in June to the government’s National Commission on Democracy and Human Rights to promote reconciliation, forgiveness, and civic education. In conjunction with the U.N. special representative to Sierra Leone, the U.N. special representative for children in armed conflict, and the Sierra Leonean government, UNICEF created a joint task force for the demobilization of child combatants and other measures to protect the rights of children.
On July 29, the U.N. Department of Political Affairs organized a Special Conference on Sierra Leone, chaired by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to solicit support for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program; humanitarian and rehabilitation needs; and ECOMOG. High-level delegations to the conference drew attention to the horrific human rights situation in Sierra Leone, but failed to offer concrete support for human rights initiatives. Several delegations, including the U.K., pledged limited support for ECOMOG and UNOMSIL, and suggested that the U.K. initiate a contact group of donor states and regional players to coordinate assistance to Sierra Leone. This contact group was scheduled to meet in early November.
The European Union, United States, and United Kingdom
On May 21, 1998, denouncing AFRC/RUF atrocities, the U.S. Department of State and the European Union (E.U.) issued a joint statement which called for “an immediate end to the senseless slaughter, mutilation, and torture of the civilian population and show full respect for human rights.” In June, the U.S. and E.U. sent a joint high-level assessment mission to the region led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Julia Taft which resulted in financial pledges for humanitarian assistance in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.
Through the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), the E.U. had since 1993 contributed over 20 million ECU (U.S. $22 million) and in July was considering an additional 6 million ECU (U.S. $6.6 million) global aid package for assistance to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The European Commission, a long-term supporter of development activities and infrastructure projects in Sierra Leone, reiterated its past pledges of several hundred million ECUs over the next ten years.
Both the U.S. and U.K. played significant roles in political and military developments. The U.S. was the single largest donor in response to the Sierra Leonean crisis, having contributed or pledged $72.5 million in humanitarian and other aid during fiscal year 1998, including support for ECOMOG. Through its Office of Transition Initiatives, the U.S. is providing $900,000 in programs for war-affected children, the reintegration of former combatants, and to promote reconciliation. The British led fund-raising efforts at the European Union for the 1996 elections, ECOMOG, and other assistance. In May, the U.S. State Department announced $3.9 million for logistical support to ECOMOG. The U.K. contributed £2 million (U.S. $ 3.3 million) to a U.N. trust fund for peacekeeping activities in Sierra Leone, £1.5 million of which was committed to support for ECOMOG. In July, the U.K. also pledged £6.5 million for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program.
A scandal broke out in early May when the U.K. media exposed an arms shipment to ECOMOG from Sandline, a private security firm based in the U.K. The secret shipment of approximately thirty-two tons of arms, allegedly delivered in February with the consent of the British government, appeared to violate U.N. and U.K. arms embargos against Sierra Leone. U.N. legal analysts subsequently determined that the embargo had not been violated, and on June 5, the U.N. Security Council lifted the arms embargo except as it applied to the AFRC/RUF.
Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
Sierra Leone-Sowing Terror: Atrocities against Civilians in Sierra Leone, 7/98