Sierra Leone

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

Sierra Leone has seen serious and grotesque human rights violations since 1991 when the civil war erupted. According to Human Rights Watch, over 50,000 people have been killed to date, with over one million people having been displaced.

Map of Sierra Leone
Maps courtesy of ITA's
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While the rebel force, the Revolutionary United Front, (RUF) have called the various governments corrupt and accused them of mismanagement of diamond and mineral resources, they themselves have committed horrendous abuses. People have been raped, had limbs amputated and more. While the RUF may have started from respectable aims, they themselves have been corrupted and attracted others who see the RUF as a way to get at the diamonds and profit from it.

Prior to the current conflict, there had been little media coverage and definitely nothing on the scale seen during and just before the crisis in Kosovo. Here, 25 times as many people have been killed compared to that in Kosovo when the international community decided to act. In fact, it has been pointed out by many that the atrocities in Sierra Leone have been worse than was seen in Kosovo. Before the current crisis, the media coverage at the height of the conflict was minimal, apart from the odd scandal in the UK about their use of mercenaries, illegal arms shipments and the odd mention of the conflict, with a bit of sustained coverage in 1996/97.

Both sides have also used a large number of child soldiers. For example, the UN estimates that of those fighting with Sierra Leone government forces, a quarter are children below the age of 18. (For more about children and conflicts, visit this web site's section on Children, Conflicts and the Military).

As a possible, but fragile, peace deal had been agreed to in 1999, this made a bit of media attention. The UN-brokered peace deal however fell under much criticism. Human Rights Watch, for example condemned the UN on this peace deal because it would give amnesty to the rebels for their human rights abuses. Even Kofi Annan tried to clarify that while peace may have been agreed to, this does not give amnesty to anyone for human rights abuses. However, the Sierra Leone government has the "sovereign right" to do this, leaving the UN with a weak excuse to concede that it is not a perfect situation, but it is all that can be done to prevent the war from continuing.

Despite any peace agreements, Human Rights Watch reported that abuses were still continuing towards the end of 1999. Some Sierra Leone Rebels suggested that they would reject deployment of UN Peacekeeping forces if they were authorized to use force in order to disarm various factions. The process of disarmament had been slow going.

Since then, however, as the UN tried to disarm the rebels near various diamond-rich areas that they controlled, the rebel forces renewed their attacks and additional UN troops were needed for deployment. For a long time, a number of UN peace keepers were also held by rebels, but subsequently released. British troops were also been sent, primarily to get any British people out of there. However, their role expanded to include helping the Sierra Leonean government, even helping in capturing rebel leaders. While the British involvement has had positive effects and been a welcome step, the fact that they operated outside the UN is a cause for concern and undermines the United Nations. Meanwhile, the Sierra Leone government also comes under criticism for causing civilian casualties while bombing suspected rebel positions.

At the beginning of July 2000 the United Nations Security Council decided to impose an 18 month ban on diamond exports from Sierra Leone, recognizing that diamonds have been fueling the conflict. The RUF has been mining diamonds and selling them to fund their weapons purchase and other activities, including human rights abuses. These diamonds have been sold around the world sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly by various diamond corporations. However, with this Security Council resolution various parties are attempting to commit to it as well.

At the beginning of May 2001, the U.N. security council went further by imposing sanctions on neighboring Liberia for supporting the RUF.

Additionally, a diamond mining ban was announced in Sierra Leone, from 18th July 2001, hoping this might help address the violence, although many are skeptical.

Liberian timber industry is also said to financing the conflict.

Isn't it ironic that Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world, while it has a rich set of natural resources and minerals, including diamonds, which have caused entire countries and corporations to get involved to fight over them?

For more information on the crisis and events ocurring in Sierra Leone, check out the following resources:

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  • by Anup Shah
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