Sierra Leone

Bolstering the Fragile Peace Accord in Sierra Leone

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The Lome peace accord of July 7, 1999 ended almost nine years of civil strife and war in Sierra Leone, but the international community has been on tenterhooks waiting to see if the peace accord would hold.
Articulating the concern of many countries, in mid-January 2000 Secretary-General Kofi Annan characterized the peace accord in the West African country as very fragile. He called for the expansion of UNAMSIL (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone) forces from the promised 6,000 to 11,100 personnel, plus 260 military observers. On February 7, the Security Council unanimously approved the increase. UNAMSIL forces will take over many of the security tasks of the soon-to-depart West African peacekeeping forces of ECOMOG. Recent reports show 4,562 UNAMSIL troops, 37 staff
officers and 220 military observers in Sierra Leone. It is significant that the Security Council gave the United Nations peacekeeping force robust rules of engagement -- "to take the necessary action" -- to fulfill its mandate.

Problems and obstacles have marred the Lome Accord from the beginning. Even with the accord in place, there continue to be reports of atrocities against civilians, including rape, murder, abduction, mutilation, and looting, similar to the crimes committed during the war mainly by the rebels. In addition, UNAMSIL's ability to secure the whole country, particularly the Eastern region, is being hampered by illegal roadblocks set up by former rebel soldiers. Only recently were UN personnel -- five military observers and an information officer -- able to visit the town of Koidu, marking the first time in years that the UN had been able to venture that far east in Sierra Leone. However, UN peacekeeping forces accompanying the observers were held back at a rebel roadblock about 75 miles from Koidu. With such roadblocks, NGOs, as well as UN personnel, are unable to reach the whole country to assess humanitarian conditions and
bring relief supplies.

In other cases, UN troops responsible for disarming former combatants have themselves been stripped of their weapons and equipment - rocket-propelled grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers, assault rifles and
communications equipment - in ambushes by rebels. Only some of these items have been recovered. The Security Council decision to increase the number of peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and strengthen their mandate should help
discourage incidents of this sort.

Food aid, another component of a secure peace, is not meeting all projected targets. Food aid is critical because so much of the local production and the normal flow of commercial imports were disrupted during the course of war. Food shortages will become more apparent as additional areas of the country are opened up to humanitarian efforts and an unknown number -- roughly-estimated at 750,000 -- of Sierra Leonean refugees and displaced persons return home. There is a great fear that serious shortages in food aid will further destabilize the fragile peace accord.

Sierra Leonean children continue to be pawns even in the peace process. As many as 10,000 to 15,000 children were abducted from their families and forced to participate in the war in one way or another. Many young boys, sometimes as young as six, were "recruited" by rebel soldiers and, according to United Nations sources, 90% of the girls were abused at the military camps. Nearly 4,000 children were reported missing, and presumably abducted, after the January 6, 1999 rebel invasion of Freetown.

Half were girls between 15 and 17 years of age; some were not even 11 years old. About 2,000 of these children are still missing. Many were reported killed or wounded in the rebels' retreat from Freetown. To this day, only a thin stream of children have returned to their homes, and even in this process there are cruel disruptions. Recently rebels recaptured 200 child soldiers on their way to a rehabilitation center, claiming that they had no orders to let them pass. They were eventually released.

The international community has agreed to a draft optional protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child which sets the minimum age for combat at 18 years of age. In Sierra Leone both sides to the conflict have said that in the future they will not recruit children under 18.

The successful implementation of the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program is essential for the peace process. Thus far, the disarmament of ex-combatants is proceeding at a very slow pace. To have been completed by December 15, 1999, it is now estimated that only 16,000 of a total of 45,000 combatants have registered with the DDR program. Reasons are that many ex-combatants feel unsafe without their weapons and, with the war-ravaged economy, many find the offer of $300 in exchange for their arms too small; others are fearful of reporting to the reception centers scattered around the country.

In addition, many ex-combatants are waiting to join the Sierra Leonean security forces, but so far the government has not established procedures that would enable them to enlist. If they are kept waiting, they could go back to war.

The refugee situation has also been slow to correct itself. With as many as 450,000 Sierra Leoneans in camps in Guinea and another 50,000 believed to be in Liberia, the potential resettlement problem is enormous. In mid-January a massive spontaneous return of Sierra Leoneans from Guinea was inaccurately reported. In reality, very few have returned to their native country, fearing rebel attacks and continued unrest in the countryside.

Refugees will also need resettlement kits and assistance (food, shelter, plastic sheeting, etc.) to enable them to return.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is now considering whether a repatriation program is practical. The refugees have little to go home to. Social services in Sierra Leone came to a virtual standstill during the conflict. Health services were severely disrupted; schools were closed in 1997; and 30% of Sierra Leone children under five suffer from acute malnutrition. Obviously, Sierra Leone is a country where the transition from relief to development must be given very close attention and full support by the international community. If refugee repatriations are not carefully planned and monitored, they could be very destabilizing.

Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:

UNHCR proceed slowly on repatriation, as Sierra Leone is not yet ready to accommodate a returning wave of refugees.

UNHCR increase its inadequate protection staff in refugee camps in Guinea.

World Food Programme and UNHCR monitor assistance levels in refugee camps to assure that refugees are receiving at least the minimum standard of food rations.

The international community support the World Food Programme and UNICEF initiatives to provide food, health, sanitation, and basic educational assistance to the people of Sierra Leone.

Programs to help thousands of victims of trauma and sexual abuse be strengthened.

The return of all abducted children become a high priority.

UNAMSIL forces move quickly to secure the whole country, particularly the Eastern region, and to challenge the rebels to finally lay down their arms and fully support the Lome peace agreement.

A new national armed forces and police force be established quickly.

The international community support the reconstruction of a revamped Sierra Leonean justice system which was decimated during the war.

Targeted programs be established to help reintegrate child soldiers into Sierra Leone daily life and society.

Agreements not to recruit children under 18 as soldiers be strictly observed.

This report was compiled by RI Associate Eileen Shields-West with assistance from former RI field representative Natacha Scott.

Contact: Larry Thompson or Sayre Nyce
(202) 828-0110 or ri@refintl.org