Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone: Letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson

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Washington - Dear Madame High Commissioner: Your decision to visit Sierra Leone encourages us to hope that the United Nations, having the opportunity and the ability, will make some progress in protecting and promoting the human rights of the people of Sierra Leone.
The country has become the site of some of the worst human rights violations on the African continent since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, for which the international community has apologized for inaction. Yet we are extremely concerned that this lesson may be forgotten, and recent history will repeat itself in Sierra Leone. We support your efforts to draw attention to the plight of civilians in Sierra Leone, against whom war has been waged, and encourage you to take specific steps to ensure the actual implementation of human rights, such as:

1. Building International Support for Decommissioning and Reintegration Programs

Many RUF fighters have indicated in various interviews with local journalists that they would be willing to lay down their arms if there were a more substantial decommissioning and reintegration program available to them. Rebels who have lived in the bush for several years, children who have grown up without attending school -- and who have participated in the conflict -- and victims of kidnapping who have been forced into military service will require assistance in making the transition to civilian life. Here, the international community has the opportunity to recruit rebel fighters out of military service -- and thereby diminish human rights violations. We ask that you encourage members of the international community to increase the support and the scope of decommissioning and reintegration programs.

2. Securing International Support for the Independent Media

Citizens of Sierra Leone have raised concerns over power sharing between the democratically elected government and the RUF, and over the question of whether RUF members will be granted a general amnesty for human rights abuses that have been committed. The League shares these concerns, and recognizes the dangers for future conflict that are sown in compromising democracy through force, and granting impunity to human rights violators. In order for a solution to be successfully implemented, citizens of Sierra Leone must be informed fully and consulted meaningfully about the terms of any peace agreement.

To achieve this end, UN and international support for independent media -- particularly radio, the most effective means of reaching the majority of the population -- is vital. ... The independent media in Sierra Leone is in need of financial and logistical support, and professional training. We ask that you help to secure UN and international support for the independent media of Sierra Leone.

3. Supporting Free Expression Rights and A Legal System that is Free of Intimidation

The independent media must also be allowed to report freely and without fear of reprisal in order to educate the citizenry. However, both parties to the current conflict in Sierra Leone have targeted journalist for reports that are perceived as critical, or supportive of the opposing side. We ask you to strongly communicate to the government of Sierra Leone and to the RUF that journalists, as well as other members of civil society, must be allowed to perform their professional responsibilities without reprisal. ... To date, in 1999, at least seven journalists have been killed in Sierra Leone.

Members of the legal profession have also been intimidated for their professional work. Such intimidation seriously erodes the implementation of the rule of law and subsequent respect for human rights. If there is to be any future accountability for the massive human rights violations that have occurred in the country, there must be a strong and independent judiciary, and attorneys must be able to carry out their legal responsibilities in an environment that is free of intimidation.

4. Initiating Efforts to Curtail Diamond Smuggling that Sustains Human Rights Abuses

The League requests that you see that efforts under the appropriate UN agencies are initiated to curtail the diamond smuggling that finances the war and perpetuates human rights abuses in Sierra Leone. The United Nations Angolan Sanctions Committee has recently conducted a fact-finding mission to Angola to determine what can be done to improve the effectiveness of anti-smuggling measures in that war-torn country. We believe that the UN should consider the implementation of such measures in the case of Sierra Leone.

5. Discussing a UN role in Providing Specific Protections for Civilians

In order to protect civilians from killings, amputations, kidnapping, and sexual abuse -- a mandate the Sierra Leone government and the often under- equipped West African Peacekeeping Force has been unable to accomplish -- the League recommends that you discuss the possibility of a UN role in providing specific protections for civilians, possibly involving "safe zones." The United Nations Observer Mission to Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) has not been sufficiently equipped or mandated to protect civilians.

As a result of the Sierra Leone government's inability to protect its citizens, it has hired mercenaries. Although the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the effects of the use of mercenaries on the human rights and the rights of peoples to self-determination has criticized their use by the Sierra Leone government, the UN has not taken on the role of protecting civilians. The use of mercenaries -- who are often, ultimately, a destabilizing force -- is allowed to gain legitimacy by default.

While the UN has encouraged additional support for ECOMOG, at present, the peacekeeping force seems unable to secure human rights in the majority of the country. It is also unlikely the RUF would allow ECOMOG to take control of certain regions of the country for the purpose of protecting civilians. During the Lome negotiations, the Sierra Leone government and the RUF agreed to "guarantee safe and unhindered access by humanitarian organizations to all people in need" and "to establish safe corridors for the provision of food and medical supplies to ECOMOG soldiers behind RUF lines, and to RUF combatants behind ECOMOG lines." However, this agreement does not assure us that the safety of noncombatants will be guaranteed. We ask that you discuss and explore the possibility of a greater UN role in protecting civilians from some of the worst human rights violations that are occurring in world right now.

Thank you for hearing our concerns. We wish you every success in your visit to Sierra Leone.

Sincerely,

Kakuna Kerina Director, Africa Program

* UNITED NATIONS Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Integrated Regional Information Network for West Africa Tel: +225 21 73 54; Fax: +225 21 63 35 e-mail: irin-wa@ocha.unon.org

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