Global Policy Forum

A Separate Peacekeeping


By Douglas Farah

Washington Post
December 10, 2000

When 600 elite British troops stormed the beaches of this war-battered capital last month, they weren't intent on capturing the city. Their high-profile military exercise was aimed at assuring residents of their readiness to repel any attack by anti-government rebels waging one of the world's most brutal insurgencies.

Not everyone in Freetown found the mock invasion comforting, however. A senior U.N. military commander, whose force is supposed to be cooperating with the British, blasted the move as unnecessarily provocative to the rebels.

The incident underlined the growing divisions between the British and U.N. contingents in Sierra Leone--the two most important military forces seeking to end this West African country's civil war--and the stark differences in their missions and methods.

Senior British officials make no secret of their feeling that such criticism from the peacekeepers illustrates only how eager the United Nations remains to placate the rebel Revolutionary United Front rather than confront it.

Since the start of its rebellion nine years ago, the RUF has killed untold numbers of civilians and plundered Sierra Leone's mineral riches. In recent years, the rebels have raped and maimed thousands of people, hacking off their hands and feet.

Britain, the former colonial power, sent troops in May at the invitation of the government, and both view the military defeat or unconditional disarmament of the RUF as the sole solutions to the civil war. Britain has 250 soldiers here who have trained and equipped about 4,000 Sierra Leonean troops, and their goal is to dislodge the rebels from the diamond-rich areas in the eastern part of the country. About 400 other British troops are stationed here and a British naval ship is moored off the coast. British officers are deployed throughout Sierra Leone's military ranks to help with intelligence, logistics and communications.

In contrast, the U.N. mission, known as UNAMSIL, continues to seek a negotiated settlement that would give the rebels a share of power--in essence returning to a peace deal that was signed in July 1999 and fell apart in May when the RUF refused to disarm and took 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage.

The 13-month-old U.N. mission, which costs about $1.5 million a day and is the largest in the world with 12,500 members, has been plagued by bitter internal disputes. Two of the largest participants, India and Jordan, which sent a combined 4,800 troops, are withdrawing and will be gone by February.

"We have two missions with fundamentally incompatible goals, but they are supposed to be working together," said a senior diplomat. "One wants to fight, the other wants to continue to treat the RUF as a force that can be dealt with rationally and brought to the table, despite the numerous setbacks."

One of the principal disputes, according to British and U.N. sources, is the United Nations' unwillingness to deploy peacekeeping troops into areas where the British-trained Sierra Leonean army units have retaken rebel-held territory. "For the U.N. not to move into territory retaken by the army of Sierra Leone is very damaging to its mission and its credibility," said Brig. Gen. Jonathan Riley, commander of British forces. "We wish to be supportive of UNAMSIL . . . but the government of Sierra Leone is legitimate. I was not aware the RUF had a seat in the United Nations."

The United States, which has no troops here but is training seven West African battalions to participate in the U.N. mission, is also urging the United Nations to be more forceful--signaling a marked shift from its support of the 1999 power-sharing accord.

In testimony before the Senate in October, Susan E. Rice, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, said the "RUF must cease to function as a military force" and that the United States believed the peacekeepers should "support the Sierra Leone army in compelling RUF compliance with its obligation to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate into society."

UNAMSIL spokeswoman Hirut Befecadu responded that the U.N. forces "are not here to fight anyone," but to establish relations with all sides in the hopes of returning to a viable peace process. Because of that position, the peacekeepers' deputy commander, Gen. Mohammed Garba, publicly attacked the British for their high-profile landing exercise. Garba called the British exercise a "provocation" of the RUF. The British expressed outrage at the statement.

The exercise came just one day after the rebels and the government signed a 30-day cease-fire in which the rebels promised to return hundreds of weapons stolen from U.N. forces and allow free deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in areas under rebel control. So far the rebels have fulfilled none of their commitments.

"It's as if the U.N. leadership learned nothing from previous experiences," said one British official. "They are using the same language that led to their humiliation a few months ago. And they . . . criticize us for preparing to take on the RUF. It is simply not rational." "If the British want war, they can have it and we will leave," said a senior U.N. military officer. "If you want peace, you talk and bring people to the table."

The British and Americans say the time is ripe to take a more aggressive approach toward the rebels because the RUF's chief backer, President Charles Taylor of neighboring Liberia, is under increasing international pressure and the Liberian economy is collapsing. Because of that, the sources said, his support for the rebels is waning, making the RUF more vulnerable militarily.

Sources close to Taylor and the RUF in the Liberian capital Monrovia said the illicit gem trade from Sierra Leone, a major source of income for both the president and the rebels, has largely dried up as international buyers curtail their buying of "blood diamonds."

At the same time, diplomats and intelligence sources estimated Taylor was spending at least $2 million a month of scarce government funds on his own security and on fighting an increasingly effective group of insurgents attacking Liberia from neighboring Guinea. Taylor is so desperate for funds that he has begun levying new taxes on the few businesses still open in Liberia and is offering tax breaks to those who pay next year's taxes now, businessmen and diplomats in Monrovia said.

International aid to Taylor has fallen sharply in the past year, and in October, Washington banned Taylor and his senior government officials from traveling to the United States because of Liberia's support of the RUF.

In November, former president Jimmy Carter, a longtime friend of Taylor, wrote the Liberian a stinging letter announcing the closing of the Carter Center office in Monrovia. "Much to our dismay, Liberia is a country where reports of serious human rights abuses are common, where journalists, human rights organizations and political activists work in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and where there is little political space for meaningful democratic debate," the letter said.

Taylor has been sudden and vociferous in his condemnation of the British forces in Sierra Leone, calling them mercenaries and saying there could be no peace in the region until they were gone. Diplomats here say it was not coincidental that just as Taylor launched his attacks on the British, the RUF began an almost identical campaign.

"Charles Taylor is bellowing about the British presence being unacceptable, and we have to ask, 'To whom?' " said Sama Banya, Sierra Leone's foreign minister. "To him and the RUF? We are a sovereign state, and we invited them in. We can't let the military stalemate go on forever. We need to be prepared to move militarily."

More Information on Sierra Leone


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