United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone: A Search for Peace

Shalini Chawla, Researcher, IDSA

 

Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world and battered by years of civil war and military coups, has long been victim to a rebel movement whose motives are murky and methods are clearly brutal. Sierra Leone seems to be in the grip of endless horror and tragedy - an estimated 50,000 dead, over a million people displaced, horrific crimes against women, children and other civilians including rape, mutilation, arson and mass murder. Peace has eluded Sierra Leone for nine years. Cities, towns and rural areas remain insecure and the supposedly defeated rebel army remains at large, indulging in a vicious retributive campaign of terror against the defenceless civilian population.

Sierra Leone is one of the key clandestine suppliers of high quality diamonds to the international market. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Foday Sankoh, is one of the main suppliers of these gems. The RUF controls Sierra Leone's mines which are mostly located in the eastern region of the country.

The beginnings of the conflict in Sierra Leone can be traced back to 1991, but it became enmeshed in a violent civil war in 1999. The duly constituted government of Sierra Leone faced violent opposition from a rebel group-RUF. The economic community of the West African states led by Nigerians tried to bring the conflict to an end, but were unsuccessful. Initially, the crisis was sought to be managed by a West African peacekeeping force which could not do much and did not succeed because of political affinities of the countries involved in the Sierra Leone crisis.

Consequently, on October 22, 1999 the United Nations (UN) Security Council established the UN mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) Thus a multinational UN peacekeeping force was deployed which included military and civilian police personnel from about 30 countries under the command of an Indian, Major General Vijay Jetley. This contingent of UN troops carried units from a number of African, Asian and European countries. Indian forces constituted a major component of these UN troops.

With the passage of time, the UN mission has changed its mandate in Sierra Leone and the strength of the peacekeeping force has increased substantially. UNAMSIL is facing a number of problems due to RUF not abiding by the Lome Peace Agreement signed in July 1999 between the government and the RUF. Also, certain weaknesses of the UN peacekeeping operation have led to a slow operation and have failed to curtail the hostile attitude of the rebels in the host country. Although, reportedly, the Indian troops in UNAMSIL have done a wonderful job and the Indian Force Commander has performed his duties effectively, he has been subjected to controversy and opposition by the West African Governments.

Sierra Leone is trapped in the endless conflict with human rights abuses becoming an integral part of the conflict.1 This article aims to study the problem of Sierra Leone and the UN mission in Sierra Leone. An attempt has also been made to analyse the functioning of the UN peacekeeping operation and also to trace the important factors responsible for creating a hostile environment and disrupting the UN peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone.

Background

Sierra Leone is an example of a nation where the collapse of political and social structures made external intervention appear the only humanitarian solution. It is a small ex-British colony in West Africa with dense forests, rich agriculture, and abundant natural resources that would normally allow for a prosperous lifestyle for its citizens. Instead, it is ranked by the UN as the world's most unlivable country.2 Since independence in 1961, successive regimes have failed to deal with the collapse of a patrimonial system of wealth redistribution and inequitable exploitation of the country's natural resources.3 The resulting social tensions produced military governments and armed rebels (RUF) who shared a common origin in the ranks of disaffected and unemployed youths on the fringes of both urban and rural society.4

In March 1991, fighters of the RUF launched a war to overthrow the government. The leader of the revolt was Mr. Foday Sankoh, a former corporal in the national army. He headed the rebel movement - RUF.5 Sierra Leone's army, with the support of the Military Observer Group (ECOMOG) of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), tried at first to defend the government. The following year, however, the army itself overthrew the government.

RUF continued its attacks despite the coup, and in February 1995, the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Envoy - Mr. Dinka. He worked in collaboration with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and ECOWAS to try to negotiate a settlement to the conflict and return the country to civilian rule.

In February 1996, parliamentary and presidential elections were held and the army relinquished power to the winner, Alhaji Dr. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. The conflict still continued as RUF did not participate in the elections and would not recognise the results. Special Envoy, Mr. Dinka, assisted in negotiating a peace agreement in November 1996, between the government and RUF known as the Abidjan Accord. The agreement was derailed by another military coup d'etat in May 1997. Now the army joined forces with RUF and formed a ruling junta. President Kabbah and his government went into exile into neighboring Guinea.

The junta was persuaded to step down by the other representatives and the newly appointed Special Envoy, Mr. Francis G. Okelo, but their efforts failed. The Security Council imposed an oil and arms embargo on October 8, 1997, and authorised ECOWAS to ensure its implementation using ECOMOG troops. Later that month, the junta and the government-in-exile signed a peace plan which was to be monitored by ECOMOG and - if approved by the UN Security Council - assisted by UN military observers. The agreement was never implemented.6

In February 1998, ECOMOG, in response to an attack by rebel/army junta forces, launched a military attack that led to the collapse of the junta and its expulsion from Freetown. President Kabbah returned to the office in March. The oil and arms embargo was terminated by the Security Council and office of the Special Envoy was strengthened to include UN military liaison officers and security advisory personnel.

In June 1998, the Security Council established the UN Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) for an initial period of six months. The mission monitored and advised on efforts to disarm combatants and restructure the nation's security forces. Unarmed UNOSIL teams, under the protection of ECOMOG, documented reports of on-going atrocities and human rights abuses committed against civilians.7

Fighting went on and more than half of the country came under the control of the rebel alliance. In December 1998, the alliance began an offensive to retake Freetown, and in January 1999 they captured most of the city. UNOMSIL personnel were evacuated.

The ECOMOG troops, later in that month, retook the capital and again installed the civilian government. It was reported that rebels were hiding out in the surrounding countryside. In the aftermath of the rebel attack, Special Representative of UNOMSIL, in consultation with the West African States initiated a series of diplomatic efforts aimed at opening up dialogue with the rebels.

The Lome Peace Agreement

Detailed negotiations began in Lome in May 1999, and after two months of negotiations, the RUF and the government of Sierra Leone reached a settlement. On July 7 all parties to the conflict signed an agreement in Lome to end hostilities and form a government of national unity.8

The agreement included power-sharing between the elected Kabbah government and the rebels, a blanket amnesty for crimes committed up to the signing, disarmament and demobilisation and the establishment of human rights and truth and reconciliation commissions9. The UN Special Representative, however, attached a disclaimer to the agreement saying: "the United Nations interprets that the amnesty and pardon shall not apply to international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law". Sankoh was granted the "status of vice president" and chairmanship of a Commission for the Management of Strategic Mineral Resources, National Reconstruction and Development.

The parties also agreed to the deployment of a neutral peacekeeping force, leading to a shift from reliance on ECOMOG to a more diverse UN contingent of peacekeepers and military observers.10 The parties to the conflict also requested an expanded role for UNOMSIL.

Establishment of UN Mission for Sierra Leone to Aid in Implementation of Lome Peace Agreement.

On October 22, 1999, the Security Council authorised a new and much larger mission - United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) "with immediate effect for an initial period of six months and, acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, decided that UNAMSIL could act to ensure the security and freedom of movement of its personnel and protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, taking into account the responsibilities of the government of Sierra Leone and the ECOMOG".11

The Security Council mandated the new mission to: "cooperate with the government of Sierra Leone and the other parties to the peace agreement that was signed in Lome on July 7; assist the Government of Sierra Leone in the implementation of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration plan; establish a presence at key locations throughout the territory of Sierra Leone; ensure the security and freedom of movement of United Nations personnel; and monitor adherence to the ceasefire".12

So, a new and much larger mission UNAMSIL was in place with a maximum of 6,000 military personnel, including 260 military observers to assist the government and carry out provisions to the Lome Peace Agreement.13 At the same time, the Council decided to terminate UNOMSIL.

To head the new mission, the Secretary General appointed Mr. Obyemi Adessiji (Nigeria) as his Special Representative in Sierra Leone, who assumed his function on December 11, 1999.

Later the mandate of UNAMSIL was revised by the Security Council and a number of relevant resolutions were taken up trying to control the situation in Sierra Leone. Finally, the mandate of UNAMSIL has been extended until December 31, 2000.

Problems Faced by the UNAMSIL

After the signing of the Lome Peace Agreement, many Sierra Leoneans believed, though with much skepticism, that the country was at long last on the path towards real reconciliation and an end to violence, destruction and human rights abuses was in sight. However, hostilities resumed in May 2000 and have severely shaken these hopes. The agreement signed with the rebels is in tatters, Seirra Leone in turmoil and UN is faced with a humiliating setback for its peacekeepers. A number of peacekeepers have been killed, many are missing, taken hostage and stripped of their guns, clothes and armoured personnel carriers which are being used by the rebels for their purposes.

In the ten months after the signing of the Lome Agreement, numerous security problems emerged-disarmament was slow and combatants from all sides became impatient; ECOMOG forces continued to be withdrawn without proper replacement; some RUF commanders were reluctant to allow free access to UN troops and humanitarian agencies. There were also incidents of UN or ECOMOG forces being disarmed and their weapons taken by rebel forces. In view of these problems Secretary General Kofi Anan recommended in January 2000 to increase the strength of UNAMSIL to 11,100 and revise the forces mandate.14

Meanwhile, the RUF had started testing the deployed forces, severely undermining the credibility of the peacekeeping operation. In early May, the peace process rapidly deteriorated following a series of RUF attacks on UN peacekeepers and about 500 people were taken captive in a series of incidents who were released weeks later after the intervention of Liberian President Taylor. Critics charged that the peacekeeping force had been sent in where there was no peace to keep and that the contingent had been under-trained and under-equipped.

Currently, the general security situation in the country is volatile and unpredictable owing to continuing RUF attacks on UNAMSIL and on the alliance of pro-government forces, which consists of Sierra Leone Army (SLA), the civil Defence force and some of the forces loyal to the former Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC/ex-SLA).

Role of Indian Troops

Indian forces constitute a major component of UNAMSIL. It was the UN Secretary General who desired an Indian to be in overall command of this peace keeping operation. Also, because of India's long and successful record of peacekeeping operations under the UN umbrella, it was the considered assessment of the UN Secretariat that Indian troops should constitute a major portion of the UN peacekeeping contingent.

Unlike most previous occasions, when Indian troops were sent for peacekeeping operations, the troops and their commander have been subject to controversy and physical pressures in Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone authorities and the RUF have not kept up with their commitments regarding the conditions under which the UN peacekeeping force was to operate. RUF has physically obstructed the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process and even detained the troops. RUF is continuing its outrageous and criminal acts against the UN peacekeepers which has been strongly condemned as "there is actually no greater humiliation for a soldier than to be deprived of his weapons".15

Another unwarranted controversy was created by West African governments about the Indian Force Commander. The Heads of State and Governments of West African countries in a resolution adopted by the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) asserted that the Indian Commander, being unfamiliar with West African conditions, has mismanaged the operations and that he should be replaced by a commander from the West African region. The resolution even suggested that the multinational peacekeeping force should be replaced by a regional West African peacekeeping force. The demand of the West African governments is irrational because it was actually their failure to manage the regional crisis which resulted in the presence of the multinational UN peacekeeping force.

There has been continued tension between the Indian Force Commander and his Nigerian deputy, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Garba. According to published reports, Gen. Jetley has accused some of the Nigerian troops of refusing to take orders and of colluding with rebel forces in the illicit diamond trade in Sierra Leone that has fuelled the civil war. The Nigerian government had asked that Gen. Jetley be replaced by an African. This demand seems unjustified since Major General Jetley has performed his duties with a "high degree of professionalism and effectiveness".16 He has acted with consummate tact and restraint despite the Indian force being in danger. The onus lies with the UN to ensure that the regional forces of West Africa do not question the credibility, impartiality, understanding and motivations of the Indian Commander of the peacekeeping force.

In the wake of this drama, India has proposed withdrawal of Indian peacekeepers from Sierra Leone. However, India has said that its withdrawal is a routine rotation of its troops in various UN peacekeeping missions. But India's decision to withdraw from UNAMSIL can be primarily attributed to the continuing tension and controversy and questioning of the credibility of Gen. Jetley. Further, India is not very comfortable working in an expanded role (from peacekeeping to peace enforcement) for the UNAMSIL that is expected to be announced shortly.Getting into peace enforcement leads to identification of the adversary which India feels inappropriate, also in an operation like this resources and eqipment to match the task are required which are lacking.

Crisis of the Lome Agreement

There is a need for the government of Sierra Leone to demonstrate the political will to achieve a peaceful resolution .The government needs to speed up the key areas of the Lome Agreement and embrace the challenges within it. RUF, which is not abiding by the peace accord, has a big responsibility to allow peace to return to Seirra Leone .The seemingly erratic and unpredictable behaviour of the RUF is a matter of great concern, but the Lome Agreement is also not flawless.

The issue of reconciliation and forgiveness in any armed conflict is an extremely difficult and complex matter to deal with and Sierra Leone is no exception The accord gave Mr.Sankoh amnesty within Sierra Leone for war crimes committed, including the gruesome crime of chopping-off hands .It also gave his group several cabinet ranks, including control of the diamond mines - the main source of foreign exchange earnings. "Instead of dealing with a guy who obviously committed war crimes, they cut him a deal and put him in charge of diamonds in the hope that he'd steal enough to keep himself happy", said Mr Dennis Jett (former US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru and author of "Why Peacekeeping Fails" who also served in Liberia when that country was torn by similar fighting)17

Another weakness of the agreement arises from the risky focus of attention only on one individual. The central focus of the Lome process was on Foday Sankoh, in the belief that he was going to bring his followers along to accept the negotiated settlement. However, Sankoh's personal conduct and ambitions have become a major obstacle to the peace process. It seems that Mr. Sankoh's commitment was not to peace but State power and a share in the country's wealth, involving the connivance of some neighbours.

Another weakness of the Lome agreement, UNAMSIL's tasks were not clearly stated, in particular, Article XVI, calling for a neutral peacekeeping force. From the beginning, the RUF contested the legitimacy of UNAMSIL and then obstructed its operation. Even before the hostage - taking incidents, the RUF had demonstrated its rejection of the UN peacekeepers by seizing large quantities of arms, ammunition and heavy military equipment. According to Oluyemi Adeniji, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Sierra Leone:

"From its induction in Sierra Leone, Sankoh had displayed an antagonism which proved implaccable to the UN Mission UNAMSIL. He denounced its deployment as illegal and inconsistent with the Lome Agreement, done without his agreement and threatening to his party. Every effort made to explain the link between UNAMSIL and article XVI of the Lome Agreement met with a pretence at understanding, only for UNAMSIL to be denounced again shortly thereafter".

(Report to 3rd Joint Implementation Committee meeting, May 13, 2000)18

Inherent weaknesses in the peace accord and the inconsistencies of the RUF leader -in word and in deed-are largely responsible for the ups and downs of the implementation process.

Shortcomings of UNAMSIL

The problem of peace in Sierra Leone also highlights basic flaws in the UN peacekeeping missions, where soldiers are often ill-equipped and ill prepared for actual fighting. "You put poor troops into an impossible situation and this is what you get", said Dennis Jett. The deployment of UNAMSIL raises a number of questions about the capacity of the UN to undertake effective operations, including issues concerning:

* The clarity of purpose and robustness of the mandate. Ever since the mission's establishment, the mandate and environment of UNAMSIL have been in a state of flux. The mandate today lies somewhere between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. This has definitely led to questions about the nature of the operation and its ability to use force.

* Fragmented command and control procedures. Questions about command and control have accompanied United Nations peacekeeping almost since its inception. When command in the field is divided, the risks increase, including the risk of casualties. Especially in the volatile and dangerous environment in which UNAMSIL operates, it is important that the leadership and all contingents share a common understanding of the task at hand and work together as a team.

* There is lack of common operational cultures of UN forces. UNAMSIL and its allies have also had difficulties in co-ordinating their arrangements. The Sierra Leone Army, the civilian defence forces, the Nigerian contingent on the Aberdeen peninsula and UNAMSIL fail to collaborate effectively in an attempt to contain the threat from the RUF.

* The major problem which concerns UNAMSIL is equipment shortfalls. A number of difficulties experienced by UNAMSIL can be attributed to a lack of essential equipment. The Secretary General himself asserted "our troops need vehicles, tents, communications equipment and more. Our soldiers deserve the best possible support".19

* Another weakness in UNAMSIL is the shortfalls in intelligence gathering and processing capacity. UNAMSIL has encountered enormous difficulties gathering and processing military information. The absence of effective intelligence architecture and bureaucratic difficulties within the force has ensured that UNAMSIL is hardly in a position to create an accurate intelligence picture of the battlefield. Without this, it is unlikely that UNAMSIL as a whole will be in a position to fight as an effective and cohesive force.20

These are some of the important issues which need to be addressed for a smooth and successful functioning of the UNAMSIL. UNAMSIL's job has been difficult, dangerous, complex, operationally slow and obstructed by political intrigue.

Conclusion

The failure of the RUF leaders to implement the Lome Agreement and its weaknesses proved to be hurdles in its implementation. In fact the Seirra Leone conflict clearly brings out a lesson that new approaches have to be devised for future mediations and negotiations in dealing with rebel groups that are elusive and unpredictable. The crisis of the Lome accord underscores the importance of looking again at the process and outcome of past accords. So what needs to be built is a durable settlement.

Also, the government of Sierra Leone must demonstrate that it has the political will to achieve a peaceful solution. For example, there is a need for the government to speed up the implementation of key areas of the Lome Agreement and embrace the challenges within it. And, definitely, the RUF and other armed groups on their part have a big responsibility to allow peace to return to Sierra Leone.

UNAMSIL encounters several operational difficulties such as fragmented command and control, lack of equipment, etc which need to be addressed by the UN. The call for a more robust mandate, rules of engagement and an increase in the size of UNAMSIL can only be given good effect if enhanced authority for UN action is combined with improved UN competence in the use of force.

Also, a deep examination of the situation, conditions and criteria is a necessary requirement before UN peacekeeping forces are deployed. The forces need to be well prepared in advance for the operation to be a success in bringing about peace. Also, the physical deployment of the UN peacekeepers into a mission area should take place after a credible and effective agreement between the parties to the conflict for the smooth functioning of the operation and to avoid controversies.

Lastly, the main objectives of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of all combatants, end of human rights abuses and thus durable peace in Sierra Leone cannot be achieved through the deployment of a peacekeeping force alone. The main focus of the international community's efforts should therefore be on strong political efforts towards a durable peace in Sierra Leone.21

 

Notes

1. See, Security Council, "Fifth Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone", S/2000/751, July 31, 2000.

2. Andrew Mcgregor,"Quagmire in West Africa: Nigerian Peacekeeping in Sierra Leone(1997-98)",International Journal, vol 54 ,no 3,Summer 1999,p.483.

3. For a detailed historical background of the conflict see, Stephen P.Riley, "Liberia and Sierra Leone Anarchy or Peace in West Africa?", Conflict Studies, 287, Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, February 1996.

4. Mcgregor n.2

5. Sankoh once a corporal in the Sierra Leone Army gained a thorough knowledge of the forests of Sierra Leone during a stint as an itinerant photographer. Later training in Libya provided him with a background in the revolutionary arts.

6. United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, Internet site, <http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/Unamsil/unamsilB.htm>

7. Ibid.

8. See, Ismail Rashid, "The Lome Peace Negotiations", Accord 9,2000, pp.26-33

9. For the details of the Lome Agreement see,"The Lome Agreement", Accord 9,2000, pp. 67-77.

10. "Chronology", Accord 9,2000, pp. 83.

11. Security Council,"Security Council establishes UN Mission for Sierra Leone to aid with implementation of Lome Peace Agreement",Resolution 1270(1999) Adopted Unanimously, SC\6742,4054th Meeting (AM) 22 October, 1999.

12. Ibid

13. Ibid.

14. The new mandate allowed it to protect civilians, escort humanitarian supplies,increase security at demobilisation and disarmament sites, carry out patrolling and provide armed escorts on main roads, retreive illegal weapons and guard government buildings and other installations.

15. Satish Nambiar,The Hindustan Times, June 17, 2000.

16. "Secretary General Gratified by the Success of Operation to Bring UNAMSIL Peacekeepers to Safety", SG/SM/7490, AFR/225, July 17, 2000.

17. As cited by Steven Mufson, International Herald Tribune ,(Bangkok) , May 9,2000.

18 As cited by,Dennis Bright,"Implementing the Lome Peace Agreenent", Accord 9,2000, p. 37.

19. "Secretary General stresses need to address issues related to UNAMSIL's Command and Control, and Structure,Equipment shortfalls and Mandate," SG/SM/7514, AFR/265,PKO/95, August 23, 2000.

20. Stuart Gordon and James Higgs report, "Briefing, UN Mission in Sierra Leone", Janes Defence Weekly, vol. 34, issue no. 13, September 27, 2000, pp. 32-34.

21. Also see, Security Council" Sixth report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission In Sierra Leone", S/2000/832, August 24, 2000.