Global Policy Forum

UN Admits to Missteps in Sierra Leone

Associated Press

May 9, 2000

Battered by criticism that it has lost its credibility in Sierra Leone, the United Nations admits it has stumbled but blames the chaos on rebels who are flouting the country's peace accord.

The president, ministers and residents in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, have expressed mounting disillusionment with the U.N. mission — particularly after it reported and then retracted news that the rebels were advancing on Freetown over the weekend.

The faulty report followed a week in which an estimated 500 peacekeepers were taken hostage by rebels and stripped of their weapons and in some cases their uniforms. It spooked a war-weary city that had seen a rebel invasion only a year before.

``The United Nations has let us down,'' Freetown resident Agnes Johnson said Monday.

She said the country was promised that there would be no security vacuum when the regional intervention force, known as ECOMOG, withdrew last week. But she said that after it pulled out, the U.N. mission was not able to offer protection.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged the criticism Monday, saying the botched reporting of the advance on Freetown and other communications problems with the mission were certainly not helping the tense situation.

``It's not the proudest moment of the force,'' he told reporters.

But his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said the United Nations wasn't to blame for the spiral of violence by the rebel Revolutionary United Front that has thrown Sierra Leone's peace process into disarray.

``The main thing is this was a peace agreement that everyone put their signatures to, and that the RUF today is not living by. And that's the heart of the problem,'' Eckhard said.

Eckhard admitted the U.N. force has stumbled. But he said little more could be expected from a new peacekeeping mission that was relying on often ill-equipped and ill-trained forces that were then attacked by rebels during their first days and weeks in the field.

``A number of these units stepped off the plane and within hours or a few days were immediately moved to the interior of the country,'' Eckhard said.``I think there are lots of explanations you could give for why the peacekeepers were a bit off balance in their early confrontations with the RUF.''

Several Sierra Leoneans have pointed to the fact that the peacekeepers have the authority to use force to protect themselves or civilians but have chosen in many cases not to use it.

``We are beginning to question whether troops from certain countries have the resolve and are willing to dirty their hands,'' said Information Minister Julius Spencer. ``We find it difficult to understand how such a large number of people can be disarmed and abducted.''

But officials say the U.N. reluctance to fight back may stem from the experience in Somalia, where an escalation in the military response — prompted by the United States — resulted in the deaths of scores of soldiers and an eventual U.S. pullout.

``In the end, upping the ante didn't work,'' said Jeffrey Laurenti, executive director for policy studies at the U.N. Association of the USA, which supports U.S. involvement in the United Nations. ``Then when you fled, the impact on credibility was profound.''

Jennifer Seymour Whitaker, senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said the United Nations could emerge from the embarrassment of the past week only if western countries choose to reinforce the battered U.N. mission with the troops and equipment it needs.

``It's salvageable if we've acquired the political will since Somalia to stick with this sort of operation and do it with some amount of strategic skill and care and forward planning,'' she said.

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