Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone: building on a hard-won peace

By Udy Bell

"The country is fragile. We can't continue with the peacekeeping. We need peacebuilding. My appeal is that the country is ready now for the next phase of development."

The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) hosted the first-ever International Music Festival in November 2005 to mark the end of the successful UN mission in West Africa, which brought peace and political stability to a country that had been engulfed in a brutal civil war for eleven years-a war that shocked the world with its images of drugged-up youngsters severing the arms, legs and other body parts of civilians. Indeed, the consequent peace in Sierra Leone was hard-won-a peace that could not have been envisioned without the presence and assistance of the United Nations.

The beginning of the conflict in the diamond-rich nation of 6 million people can be traced back to March 1991, when fighters of the Revolutionary United Front launched a war from east of the country near the border with Liberia in their efforts to overthrow the Government. Spanning coup d'états and several failed ceasefire agreements and peace accords, the United Nations Security Council authorized several missions, among them UNAMSIL in October 1999, which followed an earlier UN observer mission in the country.

UNAMSIL was deployed in the wake of Sierra Leone's civil war, which left 75,000 people dead and many more maimed. It became the largest mission a year and a half later, with 17,500 military personnel. In September 2004, UN peacekeepers turned over security to the Government and when the last peacekeepers left on 31 December 2005, Sierra Leone had a democratically-elected government, which extended its authority throughout the country.

The Mission's achievements have been numerous, ranging from disarming and demobilizing over 75,000 combatants, including some 20,000 child soldiers, who are being reintegrated back into society, to watching over the May 2002 democratic elections. UNAMSIL also played a key role as it shepherded a peace process towards the creation of a new national government in Sierra Leone and helped to regularize this West African nation's diamond mining, which had fuelled the conflict. In just a few years, official exports of diamonds grew from $10 million in 2000 to about $130 million in 2004.

However, despite these notable achievements, Sierra Leone remains in a precarious state, requiring the commitment of the international community to help the country overcome the many challenges to its delicate peace. Daudi Mwakawago, Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sierra Leone, said: "The country is fragile. We can't continue with the peacekeeping. We need peacebuilding. My appeal is that the country is ready now for the next phase of development."

Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world, with about 70 per cent of its 6 million people still living on less than a dollar a day, and 70 per cent illiterate, according to the UN Human Development Index. Moreover, it ranks either last or next to last in terms of life expectancy at birth, combined enrolment in primary, secondary and post-secondary education, and gross domestic product per capita.

The 2 million unemployed youth in Sierra Leone, many of whom are former combatants, must not be forgotten. The threat of these ex-combatants taking up arms again to fight in emerging conflicts is a real one. In the early days of the conflict, the youth were unemployed or living in a precarious economic existence and were motivated by the promise of both financial compensation and the opportunity to loot. In addition, mismanagement of natural resources could be another source of conflict as poverty levels rise. According to the UNAMSIL surveys of mining sites, more than 50 per cent of diamond mining still remains unlicensed and reportedly considerable illegal smuggling of diamonds continues.

The concern of the population regarding the withdrawal of UNAMSIL is understandable, especially in terms of security implications. However, despite the termination of the peacekeeping operation, a UN presence will still remain in the country and an international military and training team, led by the United Kingdom, will also stay at least until 2010 to train the country's armed forces.

In late August 2005, the Security Council approved the establishment of the UN Integrated Office for Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL), with an initial mandate of one year beginning on 1 January 2006. The Council stated that it was crucial that international support continued in order to help the country rebound from more than a decade of civil war. UNIOSIL has been mandated to help the Government reinforce human rights, strongly emphasizing the implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and conduct free and fair elections in 2007. This new peacebuilding mission will attempt to sustain the progress achieved as it undertakes the coordination of UN efforts to deal with arms and human trafficking, as well as illegal trade, in the volatile subregion. It will also provide security for the Special Court of Sierra Leone, which was created in 2002 through an agreement between the United Nations and the Sierra Leone Government.

The civil war in Sierra Leone and the country's ultimate emergence out of the conflict compellingly illustrate once again that peace is not sustainable without justice. The Special Court continues to provide a crucial opportunity to bring a measure of justice to the countless victims of crimes that were committed during the civil war, crimes often characterized by extreme brutality, including widespread amputation, rape, abduction, murder and mass displacement of people. Despite facing financial hard-ships, the Special Court has been a success from a legal perspective in terms of representing a significant new model of international law, often referred to as a "mixed" or "hybrid" tribunal.

The United Nations also helped in setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has the mandate to establish impartial and historical records of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law from the onset of the civil war in 1991, promote reconciliation and make recommendations aimed at preventing a repetition of the violations committed. The Commission's report identified the root causes of the conflict that have yet to be addressed, such as poverty, corruption, lack of justice and disrespect for human rights.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan's March 2005 report, In Larger Freedom: Towards Security, Development and Human Rights for All, strongly echoes these sentiments: "Not only are development, security and human rights all imperative; they also reinforce each other. ... While poverty and denial of human rights may not be said to 'cause' civil war, terrorism or organized crime, they all greatly increase the risk of instability and violence." Therefore, lasting peace in Sierra Leone cannot be achieved without duly addressing the political, economic and social spheres and their marked interconnectedness. The long-term sustainability of the gains achieved so far will require continued and dedicated international involvement and support, especially through the joint efforts of the United Nations and the donor community.