Global Policy Forum

Amnesty in Sierra Leone Opposed by Rights Group


By Paul Lewis

New York Times/Associated Press
July 26, 1999

United Nations -- Human rights organizations are campaigning against a blanket amnesty granted in Sierra Leone under a peace agreement signed earlier this month to end the brutal eight-year civil war in that tiny, impoverished West African nation.

The tactics of the Revolutionary United Front rebels included deliberately severing arms and legs of civilians, including many children.

The amnesty was extended to the rebels, led by Foday Sanko, who were promised four Government posts as well as "an absolute and free pardon and reprieve" for their actions since 1991 by the peace deal signed July 7 in Lomé, the capital of Togo, Sierra Leone's neighbor.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, and Amnesty International denounced the amnesty provision in letters to the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to the members of the Security Council and to Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"We are now lobbying Security Council members and especially the Netherlands and Canada, which seem the most sympathetic to our views," Reed Brody, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said on Friday.

The Netherlands Representative, Arnold Peter van Walsum, said the amnesty raises an issue of principle "because we believe peace and accountability are not incompatible, but that does not mean you want people to go on fighting."

Annan is due to report to the Council on the Sierra Leone peace agreement on Tuesday. And the Council will then try to adopt a resolution stating its view of the accord.

A British diplomat described the Sierra Leone agreement as "a very dirty deal but unfortunately the only one available."

The United Nations itself was so embarrassed by the amnesty provision that its representative in Lomé, Francis Okelo, added a disclaimer when he signed on behalf of the world body. He said he could not countenance amnesty for those guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity because these are forbidden by international law.

Two days after the signing, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who the previous month had pronounced herself "deeply shocked" after visiting Sierra Leone, called for an international investigation into human rights abuses there.

The protests have created a quandary for the Secretary General and the Security Council, United Nations officials and diplomats admit. On the one hand, the amnesty flies in the face of recent efforts by the United Nations to hold the parties to conflicts responsible for human rights abuses they commit.

Special international tribunals have been established to investigate and try alleged war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, while last year 120 countries agreed to create a new International Criminal Court to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

On the other hand, any perceived weakening of the amnesty granted the rebels in Sierra Leone risks driving them into armed opposition again and restarting one of Africa's longest and cruelest civil wars. Most African governments, diplomats here say, just want to see the fighting ended. Two earlier cease-fire agreements in Sierra Leone broke down.

Human Rights Watch wants the Security Council to declare that the Sierra Leone amnesty provision only covers "crimes against the state" and not "genocide, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law."

More Information on Sierra Leone


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