The Forgotten Crisis in Sierra Leone

Category: World Affairs Topics: Conflicts And War, Human Rights, Sierra Leone Views: 1142

A number of international human rights groups condemned in separate statements Thursday, human rights violations committed by Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson arrived in Sierra Leone Thursday for a two-day visit to the war-torn country and called the situation there worse than the human rights disaster in Kosova, according to the BBC. Robinson reportedly denounced the international community for employing a double standard in neglecting the humanitarian crisis in the African country.

Coinciding with Robinson's visit, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a 60-page report condemning "in the strongest terms the conduct of the RUF" and providing extensive detail of horrifying atrocities committed in Sierra Leone. Amnesty International issued a statement of its own on Wednesday, calling on the international community to address the problem of human rights abuses in Sierra Leone.

The recent increased focus on human rights in Sierra Leone comes in the midst of what could be a final resolution to tense, month-old, peace talks being conducted in Lome, Togo, between the democratically elected government of Alhadji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and rebel forces lead by Foday Sankoh. The peace talks are being mediated by British and U.S. diplomats as well as several African heads of state. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo arrived in Lome Friday to help expedite the negotiations and said he expected a final peace settlement "within a week," as reported by the BBC. Allaying fears of a Nigerian troop withdrawal before peace is assured, Obasanjo reaffirmed Nigeria's troop commitment at the head of the West African interventionist force, Ecomog, which has been largely responsible for saving Kabbah's government from complete defeat at the hands of the RUF.

The peace talks are aimed at ending a protracted civil war that has been waged since 1991, with the most recent intensification coming in the wake of Kabbah's 1996 presidential election. RUF forces overthrew Kabbah's government in 1997, forcing the president into exile for nine months before being reinstated by Ecomog. The RUF again captured the capital, Freetown, in January of this year before being expelled by Ecomog. The war has resulted in 50,000 deaths and the displacement of one million civilians, according to Sierra Leone News.

The recent outburst of international condemnation of rebel atrocities in Sierra Leone is -- while long overdue given the indisputable evidence of horrific crimes against civilians -- possibly a destabilizing influence in the peace process presently reaching its final stages. The main sticking point in the peace settlement is the actual makeup of a coalition government that would turn the RUF into a political group involved in a transitional government until new elections can be held. Kabbah has offered the RUF three of 16 government posts while the RUF has insisted on having eight posts, including the vice presidency, which it wants granted to Sankoh.

So Kabbah is caught between an avowed desire to compromise with the rebels to achieve lasting peace and public outcry in Freetown demanding no involvement of rebel criminals in the elected government, according to a June 17 press release from the Sierra Leone embassy in Washington, D.C. The international outcry could bolster opposition to the peace process and could undermine a negotiated settlement, which many feel is an absolute necessity for peace.

The need for Kabbah to make peace with the rebels becomes even more apparent when one takes into consideration the RUF's continued hold on much of the country and the inability of interventionist forces to completely dislodge the rebels. And despite the rebel atrocities, the RUF does represent a significant portion of the rural population that feels marginalized by the government in Freetown. A January 25 BBC special report on the conflict noted that "there has long been a festering resentment between Sierra Leoneans living in the rural interior and those living along the wealthier coastline." Although Kabbah is seen as relatively legitimate, many rural peasants characterize some of his government ministers as members of the old guard; "corrupt elite" that are "accused of wanting to plunder the country's economy," the BBC reported. As quoted by Sierra Leone News on June 23, Sankoh himself insists that the rebellion is a war to "liberate our people from poverty."

But the RUF's human rights abuses are impossible to ignore. Although Ecomog forces are also targeted in the recent HRW report for extrajudicial executions and a few attacks on civilians, the level of rebel atrocities seems completely unprecedented. HRW says that rebel forces have randomly shot civilians in the street and mutilated them with machetes, burned entire villages, decimated crops, burned civilians alive, routinely killed children, raped women and carried out massacres at churches and mosques.

The sheer horror of such crimes is enough to undermine, by itself, any prospects for lasting peace. The victims of such crimes will perhaps never be able to live side by side with their assailants. The Sierra Leone embassy press release said that civilians had called for a nationwide strike protesting the peace settlement and possibility of reconciliation with the rebels.

While the reports of the international human rights groups perhaps come at an inopportune time, Amnesty International insists in a June 23 press release that it is "concerned that the peace agreement under negotiation in Lomé may prevent those who have been overwhelmingly responsible for gross human rights abuses from being brought to justice." In spite of the desperate need for peace in Sierra Leone, the situation remains such, that if offenders are not prosecuted, the country could suffer further instability as a result of lingering resentment.

Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Conflicts And War, Human Rights, Sierra Leone
Views: 1142

Related Suggestions

The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.