Sierra Leone: Responding to the Crisis

150 150 Rapaport News

(from C2 Magazine, December 2000)

Amnesty International members worldwide intensified their efforts from May 2000 to end the continuing killing, rape, mutilation and abduction of civilians in crisis-torn Sierra Leone, including a focus on the trade in diamonds which has fuelled the conflict, the effect of the conflict on women and children, and combatting impunity. Intense campaigning over the following months has already contributed to dramatic changes in the international community’s approach to resolving the conflict in Sierra Leone.

Following the capture of 500 United Nations (UN) peace-keeping troops in May 2000 by the RUF, the security situation in Sierra Leone deteriorated rapidly and increased the fear of rebel forces committing further widespread gross human rights abuses against the civilian population. Despite months of international and national efforts to implement the peace agreement the RUF appeared intractable.

As well as stepping up its ongoing work on Sierra Leone and increasing its presence in the field, Amnesty International (AI) devised new campaigning techniques to tackle the immediate risk to civilians as well as some of the root causes of the nine-year armed conflict.


Armed opposition groups engaged in the internal armed conflict in Sierra Leone are notorious for their systematic campaign of terror against the civilian population and their extensive use of children for fighting. Since the beginning of the conflict in 1991 tens of thousands of unarmed civilians have been killed, raped, mutilated and abducted by rebel forces. Government-allied forces and West African forces deployed in Sierra Leone have also committed human rights abuses in the country. More than half the population of some four million has become internally displaced or has sought refuge in neighbouring countries, most in Guinea and others in Liberia. In July 1999 a peace agreement was signed by the government of Sierra Leone and the armed opposition Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the scale of abuses declined significantly. From October 1999, however, the previous pattern of human rights abuses again emerged.

Combating Impunity

In August 2000 the UN Security Council agreed to establish an independent Special Court for Sierra Leone to prosecute those most responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Together with Sierra Leonean and other international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) AI had campaigned against the blanket amnesty granted in the 1999 peace agreement, believing that there can be no lasting peace unless the perpetrators of human rights abuses are bought to justice.

Diamonds and Arms

The illicit trade in diamonds from rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone through neighbouring countries, in particular Liberia, is financing military assistance to the RUF, enabling it to continue to commit widespread abuses against civilians. The UN Security Council had imposed an arms embargo in 1997 but it had never been effectively enforced. An investigation by NGOs into the links between the diamond trade and human rights abuses in Sierra Leone resulted in NGOs from around the world joining together to campaign for immediate action by the international community and the diamond industry.

AI’s campaigning with other NGOs was intended to ensure that the UN arms embargo was enforced and that there was an independent investigation into diamond trading from West Africa and the regulation and control of the diamond industry, so that diamonds from rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone could be identified and the trade stopped. AI had to do this, however, without precipitating a consumer boycott of all diamonds or of any specific diamond company, as the diamond trade from rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone forms only a small percentage of the overall worldwide trade. AI’s mandate does not allow us to call for boycotts. However, we can and do call for sanctions to prevent the flow of resources used to acquire weapons which are used to commit human rights abuses.

There was unprecedented lobbying of the diamond industry itself, including the De Beers group, which controls some 60 per cent of the world diamond trade; the Diamond High Council, the leading industry group based in Antwerp through which some 80 per cent of the world’s diamonds pass; the International Diamond Manufacturers’ Association and the World Federation of Diamond Bourses. Governments in major diamond-importing countries, the UN and other intergovernmental organizations were lobbied to take immediate and effective action to end the trade in diamonds from rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone.

AI’s unique contribution to the campaign was its capacity to generate pressure from members around the world at all levels of the diamond trade, from jewellery shops to the Diamond High Council. This eventually proved to be one of the most successful aspects of AI’s recent work on Sierra Leone. Widespread international publicity on the diamond trade from Sierra Leone increased public awareness and the desire to take action. As direct approaches to the leaders of rebel forces was difficult, the campaign also allowed AI members to take action to address one of the root causes of the crisis which would have a direct impact on the RUF. The campaign provided new opportunities for action on Sierra Leone: people questioned whether the diamonds on sale in their local jewelery shop could have originated from Sierra Leone and so have paid for human rights abuses by rebel forces.

The diamond as a symbol of love and wealth was seen in a different light as it became clear that, for many people in Sierra Leone, diamonds had come to represent war, death, mutilation and poverty.

AI members in Belgium distributed over 3,000 postcards to those passing and entering the main street in Antwerp where the diamond industry is based. Members worldwide, from Israel and Bermuda to Sweden and Senegal, organized petitions to the Diamond High Council. Members in Ghana carried out publicity work and lobbied their government. Members of the public in Canada signed transparent ‘postcards’ headlined “Transparency Now!” which AI presented to the government. AI Côte d’Ivoire lobbied the De Beers office in their country. AI Norway launched a postcard action aimed at the umbrella body of Norwegian jewellery traders, and held meetings with its representatives. AI-USA held a demonstration in front of the US State Department and joined other US NGOs to raise public awareness and lobby the US government. Together with similar actions in other countries this increased awareness and public pressure worldwide.

The rapid achievements of the NGO campaign went beyond all expectations. On 5 July the UN Security Council imposed an 18-month embargo on diamond exports from Sierra Leone, and asked the UN Secretary-General to establish a panel of experts to investigate links between the diamond trade and the arms trade in West Africa. Enforcement of the existing UN arms embargo was strengthened. The governments of most major diamond-importing countries, including Belgium, India, Israel, the UK and the US, announced new measures to regulate and control the trade in their country and many have already passed relevant legislation. The diamond industry, fearful of a blanket consumer boycott of diamonds, reacted quickly to NGO lobbying and began to introduce strong measures to regulate and control the trade. With international assistance, government-authorized exports of diamonds from Sierra Leone resumed on 12 October using a new system of certification. The government of Liberia remains under heavy diplomatic pressure to end its military and political support to the RUF.

The ongoing campaign is an extraordinary example of the influence of political, consumer and moral pressure to bring about major change at all levels. It has demonstrated the vital role of transnational trading industries and the growing need to influence companies and business organizations in a comparable way to governments and intergovernmental organizations. It has also provided valuable opportunities for AI to strengthen working relationships with other NGOs, to explore new campaigning initiatives and to engage a wide range of members and other individuals in working towards an end to human rights abuses in Sierra Leone.

Childhood – a casualty of conflict

“I want to go to school and learn so that I can forget the old times”, former child combatant, March 2000.

Children continue to be extensively used as combatants in Sierra Leone, one of the most abhorrent and distressing features of the conflict. More than 10,000 children, both boys and girls, some as young as five, are estimated to have been associated with rebel forces or those allied to the government, about half of them used as fighters. Girls have been forced into sexual slavery. Victims themselves, they have also been perpetrators of human rights abuses, sometimes against their own families and communities. Many have been forced to kill and mutilate under the influence of drugs, alcohol or through fear. Former child combatants often say that they do not know why Sierra Leoneans are killing Sierra Leoneans.

After the 1999 peace agreement some progress was made towards securing the release of child combatants. The crisis in May 2000, however, meant that not only did the disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation of these children cease but further children were recruited, forcibly and voluntarily, to fight.

AI researchers in Sierra Leone interviewed many children who had been abducted and forced to fight or ‘serve’ during the conflict. Their testimonies and drawings are published in an AI report, Sierra Leone: Childhood – a casualty of conflict ( AI Index: AFR 51/69/00, 31 August 2000), which is being used by AI members worldwide, including youth and student groups, to publicize the plight of children in Sierra Leone and to lobby their own governments as well as the government of Sierra Leone to ensure that the needs of children affected by the conflict are met.

One of the more difficult and controversial aspects around the establishment of the independent Special Court is the question of prosecuting children for crimes committed during the conflict. The draft statute of the Special Court provides jurisdiction over children aged between 15 and 18 when the crime was committed. In many cases, children have been coerced, drugged or terrorized into committing crimes. AI believes that priority should be given to prosecution of those who committed such crimes against children, especially those who recruited children as combatants, whether voluntarily or forcibly. Some children may, however, have become combatants voluntarily and committed crimes voluntarily; in such cases, where criminal responsibility can be established, AI believes that children between the ages of 15 and 18 should be held accountable for their actions, as part of the wider process of tackling impunity and respecting the rights of victims to justice and reparation. At all times, international standards for fair trial for children under 18 are vitally important and must be adhered to. These standards place the best interests of the child as a priority, recognize the special needs and vulnerabilities of children and place an emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration rather than punishment.

The new face of Amnesty International in Sierra Leone

by Isaac Lappia, AI Sierra Leone Section Director

AI’s campaigning has had an incredible impact on the human rights situation in Sierra Leone and on those of us in the Sierra Leone section of AI. We have been able to increase the understanding of AI through the movement’s work on our country.

Other Sierra Leone NGOs have campaigned intensively on some of the central issues AI has highlighted, for example, the illegal trade in diamonds from rebel-held areas, ending impunity and the use of child soldiers.

Sierra Leone NGOs have, however, been faced with the daunting task of trying to combat the culture of violence caused by the nine-year conflict. We in AI-Sierra Leone have been involved in setting up human rights education programs. Twenty teachers have been trained to teach human rights and classes have been created in each of the 10 senior secondary schools in the capital, Freetown. In a recent training workshop, they wrote stories, poems and plays depicting human rights messages which will be developed into a text for use by schools. We are working to expand this program to other regions of the country and other NGOs.

The number of people who oppose the death penalty in Sierra Leone is steadily increasing. A decade ago, the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty was unpopular and even posed some risks. AI members were verbally attacked for being sympathetic to criminals who, many believed, deserved nothing but death. It is becoming increasingly clear today that the many judicial executions in the past have played a significant role in aggravating the conflict. It is widely believed that the incursion into Freetown by the armed opposition Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the RUF on 6 January 1999, in which more than 5,000 people died and many others had arms and legs hacked off, were raped and abducted, was in revenge for the execution of 24 AFRC officers in October 1998. Today, people are gradually realizing that violence only gives rise to further violence. The cycle of violence in Sierra Leone can never be broken while national legislation continues to prescribe the death penalty.

At the end of the year 2000 AI Sierra Leone has more friends than ever and our membership has been encouraged and motivated to support the movement all the more. As people come to understand the role of AI better, their perception and attitude towards AI becomes ever more positive.

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