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Sierra Leone : Time for a New Military and Political Strategy
Sierra Leone : Time for a New Military and Political Strategy
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Report 28 / Africa

Sierra Leone : Time for a New Military and Political Strategy

Sierra Leone is a human tragedy of massive proportions that is rapidly becoming a security nightmare for all West Africa. Two-thirds of Sierra Leone’s population are thought to have been displaced during the ten-year civil war. Another 600,000 have become refugees in neighbouring countries.

Executive Summary

Sierra Leone is a human tragedy of massive proportions that is rapidly becoming a security nightmare for all West Africa. Two-thirds of Sierra Leone’s population are thought to have been displaced during the ten-year civil war. Another 600,000 have become refugees in neighbouring countries. The war is spilling over into Guinea, where heavy fighting since September 2000 threatens the collapse of the government and has already produced a massive, new refugee problem. In effect, Sierra Leone is now at the heart of a series of conflicts that risk forming an arc of violence from southern Senegal to the Ivory Coast.

ICG believes the international community needs to take a radically different approach to that in which it has engaged so far. There should be no further negotiations with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) other than for its complete disarmament and demobilisation. The RUF has blatantly used negotiations for the purpose of rearming. It has consistently shown bad faith in the string of agreements it has signed in Abidjan, Conakry, Lomé and Abuja. The RUF has no meaningful political constituency. Its main backer is Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, who uses it as a proxy army to pursue his drive for regional hegemony: not for nothing is Taylor known widely as the Milosevic of West Africa. And, of course, the RUF has committed heinous atrocities qualifying as war crimes.

This report reaches the conclusion, stark, but we believe unavoidable -- that the international community must help Sierra Leone take decisive military action against the RUF. There are two vital conditions.

First, it is urgent to harmonise the divergent approaches of the UK government, which is arming, retraining and re-equipping the Sierra Leone army (SLA) for a serious campaign, and the UN military mission (UNAMSIL), which is still trying to implement the compromise provisions of the Lomé agreement. The international community cannot run two or more strategies in Sierra Leone simultaneously. Working against each other with conflicting mandates will only fuel the conflict and invite warring factions to exploit differences.  Achieving a common approach will require much diplomacy, especially with West African nations that are hesitant about a muscular policy in which a former colonial power takes a prominent role.

Those in the RUF who refuse to demobilise should be defeated militarily. The military option could be spearheaded by UK trained and led Sierra Leone armed forces, with UNAMSIL securing the areas regained. The UK should provide military and intelligence backup to guarantee the safety of UN forces. The Civil Defence Force (CDF) could provide additional security for local villages and settlements.

Secondly, military action must be co-ordinated with a coherent political strategy accepted by all the key international actors and the Sierra Leone government. This will involve some form of UN-endorsed commitment to an international effort that may need to last five years or more, in order to help Sierra Leone re-establish good governance and reconstruct its shattered society. Without such a political effort, even military victory over the RUF would be pointless since the resulting power-vacuum would soon be filled by more violence from government and pro-government forces, new rebels and predatory neighbours.

The specific recommendations that follow will be difficult to implement. If the international community does not make a substantial commitment to help Sierra Leone resolve both its military and political problems now, however, it is all too easy to foresee the contagion of violence spreading out of control in West Africa much as has happened in Central Africa.

Freetown/Brussels/London, 11 April 2001

Statement / Africa

Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators

The landmark guilty verdict today against former Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor is a warning to those most responsible for atrocity crimes that they can be held accountable.

A decade after the war in Sierra Leone, the Special Court’s ruling marks the first time that a former head of state has been found guilty of war-time atrocities by an internationally-backed court since the Nuremberg trials. The verdict is a fresh lesson to all those in power that they do not enjoy impunity and a sign of hope in Sierra Leone that those most responsible for the heinous crimes of the eleven-year civil war (1991-2002) are being brought to book. Nevertheless, Liberians are still waiting for Taylor and others to be tried for atrocities committed in the civil war in their country.

“The guilty verdict against Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) is a watershed moment in the fight to hold high-level perpetrators accountable”, says Gilles Yabi, Crisis Group’s West Africa Project Director. “It is also a momentous day for the victims’ families, who have waited patiently for this ruling since the court began its work”.

The verdict has been a long time coming. Taylor was indicted in March 2003 on multiple counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international law. He was accused of helping to plan, order and encourage acts including murder, terrorising civilians, mutilation, rape, sexual slavery and recruiting child soldiers. The charges stemmed from his support for Sierra Leone rebel groups as commander of the National Patriotic Front for Liberia from 1989 and after becoming president in 1997.

Under the peace agreement that ended Liberia’s civil war in 2003, Taylor resigned as president. He was granted exile in Nigeria but extradited in March 2006 to Freetown, at the request of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and after he violated the terms of his exile by meddling in Liberian politics. Owing to regional security concerns, his trial before the SCSL – a court set up jointly by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations – was held in The Hague.

This verdict ends the work of the court, which also convicted eight other individuals. Its mandate was to prosecute only those most responsible for the crimes within its jurisdiction. That brief was heavily criticised because it meant that many lesser perpetrators would go free, particularly given the weaknesses in Sierra Leone’s justice system. While the judgment sends a strong message that heads of state can be prosecuted, many Liberians may feel short-changed. Despite the long and costly work of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended prosecutions for the main perpetrators of atrocities during the Liberian civil war, impunity still prevails and remains an obstacle to national reconciliation.

“While this is a significant day for Sierra Leone, many in Liberia will have mixed feelings”, says Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director. “Taylor and other Liberians have yet to be held to account for crimes committed in Liberia’s civil war. Several suspects continue to serve in public office”.