Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's path to peace: key issues at Year's End

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The situation in Sierra Leone is likely to get worse before it gets better. After eight years of civil war, 20,000 deaths, up to 1.5 million uprooted people, and a controversial peace accord, Sierra Leone continues to struggle to achieve peace. Outbreaks of factional fighting and rebel attacks against civilians continue. Last week, rebels abducted two international aid workers. During the last two weeks, some 1,000 to 5,000 new refugees have reportedly fled the country.
In the weeks ahead, rebel leaders are likely to accelerate efforts to derail the demobilization process and defy efforts to restore peace to Sierra Leone. The international community must demonstrate resolve in confronting this challenge.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees conducted a site visit to Sierra Leone in August, issued extensive findings and recommendations in September, and has continued to monitor the situation closely. As 1999 draws to a close, several key issues warrant careful attention if Sierra Leone's tenuous peace process is to succeed.

Rapid Deployment of UN Peacekeeping Force Needed

The UN has authorized 6,000 peacekeeping troops for Sierra Leone. The bulk of the force consists of Nigerian troops already on the ground. Contingents of Kenyan and Indian peacekeepers have begun to arrive. It remains unclear when the entire force will become operational throughout Sierra Leone. Rapid deployment of peacekeepers beyond government-controlled territory is urgently needed to calm tensions and give combatants confidence to disarm.

Success of the peacekeeping mission and the entire peace process will be tested when UN troops begin to deploy in coming weeks to Sierra Leone's Northern and Eastern Provinces and begin to move into diamond-mining areas controlled by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. Peacekeeping troops should be prepared to use appropriate force in response to RUF challenges.

Nigerian troops currently patrol the exterior perimeter of existing disarmament camps. Nevertheless, UN peacekeepers are also required inside the disarmament camps as an added precaution to alleviate civilians' fears that rebels may use some camps as bases to attack the capital, Freetown.

Disarmament and Demobilization Delays Continue

Successful disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of an estimated 45,000 combatants hold the key to long-term stability in Sierra Leone. Progress so far has been modest: close to 2,000 combatants have disarmed. The initial deadline for disarmament this week will be extended.

To date, international donors and multilateral agencies have pledged half of the $50 million required. Much of the pledged monies have not yet reached the field. Donors should move rapidly to deliver pledged amounts and make additional commitments to cover the 50 percent funding shortfall.

The four existing demobilization centers are insufficient. Uncooperative rebel leaders in key areas and widespread insecurity have prevented opening six additional demobilization sites called for under the government's official plan. The success of the disarmament and demobilization plan will depend, in large part, on rapid deployment of peacekeeping troops throughout the country.

At this time, relatively simple tasks stand to produce the greatest results. Misunderstandings are common among Sierra Leonean citizens, relief workers on the ground, and donors because an effective public information strategy has not been mounted to explain the peace accord, how the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program functions, what kind of assistance will be targeted to combatants, and what kind of assistance the war-affected civilian population will receive. The World Bank and the United Nations should work together to provide the government of Sierra Leone with the means to produce a first-class, wide-ranging, mass information campaign, targeted to various audiences.

Civilians, Aid Workers and Refugees Remain at Risk

Factional fighting last month forced international aid organizations to withdraw, again, from most rebel areas, jeopardizing the lives of thousands of malnourished civilians. Rebels have attacked, murdered, and raped civilians in recent weeks, reportedly forcing 1,000 to 5,000 new refugees to cross the border to Guinea.

The abduction of two Medecins Sans Frontieres aid workers by RUF rebels last week has provided further evidence that some factions are willing to resort to desperate measures in a bid to undermine the demobilization process. The timing of the abduction suggests it was aimed to test the resolve of West African leaders who support the peace agreement, as they gathered last week for a regional summit.

UNHCR/Guinea has recently resumed the transfer of refugees in camps located dangerously close to the border. Protection concerns remain a priority. UNHCR should bolster its protection staff in Guinea, which numbers roughly one protection officer for every 100,000 refugees-a glaring discrepancy from UNHCR standards in other parts of the world. The World Food Program predicts serious shortfalls in the food pipeline beginning next month. Food assistance for an estimated 400,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea must be guaranteed for next year since Sierra Leone will likely remain unsafe for repatriation for the foreseeable future.