Sierra Leone

The interaction between political and humanitarian action in Sierra Leone, 1995 to 2002

Originally published


Geneva, March 2003
Toby Porter


Summary of findings


1. The RC/HC model, January 1995 to May 1997
1.1 Context
1.2 Commentary
1.3 Humanitarian action
1.4 Funding
1.5 Coordination

2. The Conakry period, May 1997 to March 1998
2.1 Context
2.2 Commentary
2.3 Humanitarian action
2.4 Funding
2.5 Coordination

3. UNOMSIL, March 1998 to October 1999
3.1 Context
3.2 Commentary
3.3 Humanitarian action
3.4 Funding
3.5 Coordination

4. UNAMSIL, October 1999 to May 2000
4.1 Context
4.2 Commentary
4.3 Humanitarian action
4.4 Funding
4.5 Coordination

5. Deadlock and review, May 2000 to March 2001
5.1 Context
5.2 Commentary
5.3 Humanitarian action
5.4 Funding
5.5 Coordination

6. Peace and integration, May 2001 to October 2002
6.1 Context
6.2 Commentary
6.3 Humanitarian action
6.4 Funding
6.5 Coordination
6.6 The quality of the peace

7. Five key themes and questions
7.1 Quick-impact projects - merit and motive?
7.2 Military involvement in assistance - where to draw the line?
7.3 The IDP resettlement programme - business as usual?
7.4 Human rights and integration - coherence versus autonomy?
7.5 The UK in Sierra Leone - villain of the conflict and hero of the peace?

Sources and further reading

Acronyms and abbreviations



This study was sponsored by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue as part of its work on the relationship between political and humanitarian action. Research was carried out during a six-week period in August and September 2002.

I would like to thank the long list of people in Freetown, Geneva, London and New York who made themselves available for interviews during my research. In Freetown, I am indebted to the office of Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General Doss for generous cooperation with the study, and for helping to arrange many of the interviews. In New York, OCHA's Policy Development and Studies Branch gave me an office to work from, as well as a range of important insights.

I would like to thank Martin Griffiths, David Bryer, Rama Mani, Jo Macrae, Johanna Grombach Wagner, Karin Wermester and Nicholas Stockton for their feedback on my research. Special appreciation to David Keen and Eric Berman for reading early drafts of this report, and for offering valuable commentary and corrections.

Most of all, I would like to thank my son Michael, for postponing his happy arrival into this world until October 2002, thereby allowing me the time to finish writing this report!

Note on references and sources

The footnotes to this report specify each source quoted, cited or drawn on in the text. For sources cited more than once, whether interviews, UN reports or published references, full details are included in the 'Sources and further reading' section at the end of this report.

Summary of findings

Humanitarian action in Sierra Leone was closely tied to the political process throughout the period of this study. Ultimately, the political will to support the peace process created conditions extremely beneficial for humanitarian assistance, most notably secure access to all of the country, and increased funding for relief and reconstruction activities. In particular, this was achieved through a revitalised and currently effective peacekeeping force (UNAMSIL) deployed in the country. However, a satisfactory outcome in Sierra Leone cannot disguise an often turbulent and unhappy relationship between humanitarian and political interests, and the inescapable conclusion that, when they did clash, humanitarian considerations consistently came second to political imperatives.

During the period under study, the UN operation in Sierra Leone underwent several quite radical changes, as did the consequent relationships between various actors and stakeholders. Six distinct periods of UN operations are identifiable between 1995 and 2002.

1. January 1995 to May 1997: Strong UN political support to the Government of Sierra Leone, in the midst of a civil conflict. The traditional Resident Coordinator/ Humanitarian Coordinator model (RC/HC) was unsuccessful, partly due to the exceptionally close relationship between the RC/HC and the Government.

2. May 1997 to March 1998: After the military junta took power in Freetown, the Government of Sierra Leone went into exile in Conakry, Guinea, accompanied by UN leadership. The latter was accused of blocking humanitarian assistance from reaching Sierra Leone, along with donors such as the UK.

3. March 1998 to October 1999: A small UN Observer Mission (UNOMSIL) with military observers was set up in July 1998, accompanying the West African regional force, ECOMOG. The relationship between the humanitarian community and the UN political leadership worsened.

4. October 1999 to May 2000: The creation and deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, UNAMSIL, culminating in the crisis involving the capture of UNAMSIL troops in May 2000. UN system leadership was provided by a Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), but there were serious concerns about the quality of his relationship with the UN Country Team and wider humanitarian community. The near collapse of UNAMSIL threatened the entire aid programme.

5. May 2000 to March 2001: A reformed and strengthened UNAMSIL with greater coherence, and significant support from the UK in the peace operation. A Strategic Framework for Sierra Leone was developed and then abandoned. Continuing concern about the relationship between UN political and humanitarian entities led to the appointment of a new Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (DSRSG), who is also UN Resident Representative, Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator, a model recommended in the Brahimi Report.

6. March 2001 to October 2002: Peace, DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration), return of refugees and IDPs, and the significance of a single donor, the UK, in peacebuilding. The relationship between the UN political and humanitarian community greatly improved, due to the success of the DSRSG and the growing compatibility between political and humanitarian/development objectives.

The experience in Sierra Leone reveals the tensions inherent in the expectation that the United Nations will provide leadership in the political efforts to end a conflict, and simultaneously provide leadership and coordination of humanitarian activities. These tensions were particularly acute in Sierra Leone, as the political strategy was based around strong support to the Government, while much of the country, including most of the areas of greatest humanitarian need, was controlled by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The issue was not whether or not this political strategy was correct, but that it appears repeatedly to have compromised the ability of the United Nations to negotiate access for aid agencies to RUF-held areas.

Policy coherence between UN actors in terms of a unified or common political purpose or goal well before the time of formal mission integration led to the politicisation of assistance, and deep distrust of humanitarian actors, who were wrongly perceived to be siding with the rebels. The degree of acceptance by the Government of Sierra Leone of humanitarian action fluctuated in line with its political and military fortunes. At times of pressure, the Government took an overtly hostile stance on the continued provision of assistance by humanitarian agencies to populations in territory outside Government control.

When political and humanitarian objectives appeared to clash, the humanitarian concerns unquestionably came second to the political. The clearest example was when a junta took power in Sierra Leone in 1997, and the withholding of humanitarian assistance to the country was used as a tool to try and bring about the political objective of regime change.

A distressing feature of this 'Conakry period' is that the withholding of humanitarian assistance was strongly supported by the UN political leadership, the UK Government (including DFID) and the Humanitarian Coordinator. The policy of preventing humanitarian assistance from reaching Sierra Leone was implemented through a combination of cutting off funding and blocking aid supplies at the border with Guinea. This policy was 'coherent' with the political strategy of isolating the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The political objective of regime change, however, was not ultimately achieved by depriving civilian populations of food and medicines but by the military intervention of ECOMOG, a regional force.

Based on the reasonable assumption that civilian lives that may otherwise have been saved were lost unnecessarily, this period stands as one of the most shameful episodes of humanitarian inaction in modern times. Those encouraging the policy may well have been in breach of the Geneva Conventions through attempts to block humanitarian assistance from reaching civilian populations. It appears to be a classic case of interpreting coherence as political hegemony rather than the management of different demands which are possibly conflicting but equally valid.

It was observed that UNOMSIL and later UNAMSIL withheld vital security information and even, on occasions, allegedly provided information known to be false to humanitarian actors, which could have placed their lives in peril. ECOMOG on occasion also directly accused humanitarian actors of what it saw as collaboration with rebels, due to the misperception created by NGOs' continued assistance to needy populations in RUF-held areas, based on the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality.

The near collapse of the UNAMSIL mission in May 2000 is a textbook case of an ineffectual peacekeeping mission as described in the Brahimi Report. The mission was destined to fail before it had even been deployed, by the lack of political will and internal cohesion with which it had been set up. The revamping of UNAMSIL following the hostage-taking crisis was partly driven by the need to save the UN's mired reputation in peacekeeping.

The eventual success of the peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, after coming so close to total failure, demonstrates the extent to which good peacekeeping is dependent on political will in the United Nations, and particularly in the Security Council. The Sierra Leone case clearly shows the beneficial impact of a prominent role played by at least one UNSC member - the UK - in the peace operation and subsequent peacebuilding process. A security-first approach was adopted and finally successful in forwarding peace.

Efforts to improve the overall effectiveness of UNAMSIL had a significant and direct positive impact on humanitarian action, essentially doubling the territory in which aid agencies could operate. After five years of extremely limited and irregular access to civilian populations in RUF-held areas, with aid agencies forced to operate in conditions of extreme insecurity and unpredictability, UNAMSIL's deployment gave humanitarian organisations unprecedented, secure and lasting access to the entire country.

A unique lesson from Sierra Leone is the importance of donors adopting new approaches, and levels of commitment, for ailing countries to emerge from conflict. Since 2000, the role of the UK in Sierra Leone represents an unprecedented attempt at a coherent response to peacebuilding, involving military, political and aid interventions working to a common plan. During this time, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) has stretched conventional aid to its limits. It is a matter of regret that other donors have not shared the financial and political burden to the degree that DFID had hoped, as this places a question mark over whether such support would be repeated in other countries.

The high sums of money invested in peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, with UNAMSIL currently costing some $692 million per year, stand in obvious contrast to the low level of voluntary contributions to other important elements of the peacebuilding process. In particular, the long-standing and well-documented reluctance of donors to support the critical DDR programme is hard to understand, in view of its crucial importance to the peace process.

The humanitarian community displayed an inconsistent attitude towards the use of UNAMSIL assets in support of its programmes. After two years of insisting on maintaining clear distance from UNAMSIL, most agencies had begun regular use of UNAMSIL assets by late 2001. Should this changing attitude be interpreted as a sensible and pragmatic response, in the context of a peace process taking hold, or as an example of the humanitarian community once again failing to agree common principles?

After several years of fraught interaction, the best relations between humanitarian, political and other actors came after the introduction of an integrated mission structure and the appointment of a DSRSG, despite strong initial reservations of humanitarian agencies concerning this coordination structure. The improvement was undoubtedly attributable to the fact that the arrival of the DSRSG coincided with real advances in the peace process. However, it was also due in large part to the character, skills and humanitarian background of the individual DSRSG, who recognised the legitimate autonomy of different actors and sought to achieve only that level of coherence which was needed to reach effective solutions and which was feasible given the varied mandates.

The DSRSG/HC/RC/RR model has many advantages, and gave the humanitarian community in Sierra Leone a voice and unprecedented access to information within UNAMSIL. This access did not involve any trade-offs, primarily because no authority was either given or sought by the DSRSG to make programme decisions or resource allocations on behalf of UN agencies. There are many strengths of this 'part integration, part coherence' model (which are detailed in the main report). The structure is certainly replicable, if adequate thought is given to the two factors that have most enabled its success - the absence of conflict, and an unusually skilful and respected coordinator.

UNAMSIL had an unprecedented mandate for the protection of civilians, which merits attention and replication. During the peace negotiations, issues of human rights and justice were placed behind political considerations and the pressure to achieve a settlement. In contrast, human rights were integrated into the revamped UNAMSIL peace operation. This led to increased funding from the peacekeeping budget for the normally under-funded component of human rights, and improved sharing of information between human rights and political peacekeeping. However, there is no tangible evidence that the integration of human rights into the UNAMSIL mission resulted in greater human rights protection for civilians.

An unusual feature of the crisis in Sierra Leone is that the levels of funding for humanitarian assistance have remained modest. While increasing when the political aims of the international community have shown success, and decreasing during the junta period, the overall levels of funding have never been high. There is little evidence of the short-term surge in funding and concomitant proliferation of NGOs that have been witnessed in other humanitarian situations deemed to be of political significance to the major donors. Even during politically important population movements, such as the return of refugees and especially the resettlement of internally displaced persons, a lack of funding is felt to have contributed to the generally poor level of assistance offered to the population.

Despite clear improvements in communication and information-sharing during 2001 and 2002, the extent to which the actual delivery of humanitarian assistance improved is unclear. The overall aid effort in Sierra Leone continues to be hampered by many of the weaknesses of the humanitarian system as a whole. These include the lack of a designated lead agency for internally displaced people, insufficient baseline data to illustrate humanitarian need and poor or non-existent monitoring of the impact of interventions. Furthermore, the humanitarian community appears fragmented, with no common approach to or understanding of key issues such as how best to work alongside UN peacekeeping forces, or engage with a host government in a post-conflict situation. These weaknesses, together with a lack of clear objectives, leave humanitarian action more susceptible to manipulation for political ends.

It is not clear how humanitarian assistance has contributed to peacebuilding in Sierra Leone. Over the past two years, aid agencies have increasingly framed their assistance programmes in terms of what they can contribute to the Sierra Leone peace process. The 2002 CAP states in its executive summary that 'the aim of humanitarian interventions is to ultimately contribute to the consolidation of peace and security', but how it will do so is never explained. Weak monitoring of the impact of aid interventions make such claims impossible to substantiate.


The recent history of political and humanitarian action in Sierra Leone provides a rich context for a study of this nature. The country has been gripped by a complex, confusing and often barbaric conflict, in which civilian suffering at the hands of warring parties, direct and indirect, reached terrible levels. The principal actors in the conflict were the Armed Forces of Sierra Leone, various groupings of pro-Government local militia collectively known as the Civil Defence Force, and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Since the mid-1990s, outside involvement in Sierra Leone has taken many forms. Regional, national, international and multinational actors have all played their part, sometimes in harmony, and at other times in open and fundamental dispute. Over this period, the international community has reacted to developments in the conflict and to regime change by veering between seemingly unconditional political support to the regime in Freetown, a strategy of total political isolation, and back again.

There has been an international military presence, either a regional force (ECOMOG) and/or a United Nations observer mission (UNOMSIL) or peacekeeping force (UNAMSIL), in Sierra Leone since 1998. Originally deployed to monitor ceasefires or in support of a peace agreement, these forces also engaged at varying points in direct military confrontations with one or more of the warring parties. Other 'bilateral' political and military forces have played important roles, with the Governments of Liberia, Libya and Burkina Faso directly or indirectly facilitating the military rise of the RUF in 1991 and subsequently sustaining it, and Guinea and the UK playing roles of varying significance in its military demise ten years later.

Throughout this turbulent period of political and military activity, one of the few constants of international engagement with Sierra Leone has been the attempted provision of impartial humanitarian assistance to the victims of the conflict. The core cast of international aid agencies, Government institutions, and armed (or now disarmed) actors in Sierra Leone has actually changed little since 1995, while the form and intensity of other kinds of international political and military involvement in the country have evolved and changed beyond recognition over the same period. It should therefore be possible to isolate and explore the impact of political action as a key variable operating on humanitarian assistance, directly and indirectly, by examining how the security, access, programmes and coordination arrangements of humanitarian agencies were affected from 1995 to 2002.

Sierra Leone is also an interesting case study in terms of peacebuilding, not least because the analysis and prescription of required conditions for lasting peace has essentially remained constant from 1995 throughout the volatile subsequent years. For example, the first Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation in Sierra Leone, issued in November 1995, 1 lists the following among the prerequisites of durable peace: an end to hostilities, unrestricted movement for humanitarian agencies, the return of uprooted populations, a successful and rapidly implemented programme of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), the holding of elections and a general peace dividend, and the restoration of basic social service provision throughout the country.

The basic ingredients for peace remain unchanged today. The successes and failures of peacebuilding efforts over this time can therefore be taken as indicators of implementation - of the conviction, sequence, timing and skill with which each instrument has been applied.


1 S/1995/975.

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