Sierra Leone: UN policy failure

Sierra leone is yet another casualty of the UN Security Council's "disengagement" policies. The Council, often an instrument of the West, has been remiss in carrying out its duty to maintain international peace and security. Its increasing reliance on regional organizations to assume the lead in peace operations is particularly misguided regarding African conflicts.

At a time of growing challenges to African peace and security, UN peacekeepers are either conspicuously absent from the region or their roles have been marginalized. The Council has drastically reduced the size and scope of peacekeeping - the 73,000 peacekeepers in 1993 has dwindled to 14,000.

The Council camouflages its reluctance to commit "blue helmets" by subcontracting the promotion of peace and security to regional organizations - appearing to be doing something, when in fact it is doing nothing. Sometimes, regional organizations have been effective - as in the Balkans - in assuming responsibilities previously carried out by the UN. But African political and security organizations, with few resources, have encountered great obstacles.

In Sierra Leone, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) have undertaken the unenviable task of trying to restore peace. The eight-year civil war has grown in ferocity in the past two years, flaring again with a rebel offensive last week. Sierra Leoneans have suffered large-scale atrocities at the hands of rebels. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, ousted in May 1997 and reinstalled with the aid of ECOMOG in February 1998, has never exercised effective control of his nation.

The Nigerian-led force has proven willing but unable to quell the unrest. Although ECOWAS has politically supported Nigeria's bid to restore Mr. Kabbah, it cannot provide the necessary financial and operational support. As a result, Nigeria has funded its military activities in part by plundering Sierra Leone and hasn't established an effective presence throughout the country.

Western nations have had limited success in mitigating ECOMOG's logistical and financial constraints. In July 1998, the Council authorized a small UN monitoring mission of 70 observers to serve alongside the estimated 15,000-strong ECOMOG force. This UN "force" has made little difference. The UN has responded to the latest rebel advance by evacuating peacekeepers, whereas ECOMOG has sent in reinforcements.

The Security Council's approach to the strife in Sierra Leone isn't significantly different from its approach to other African conflicts. In Liberia the international community similarly allowed ECOMOG to take the lead and then authorized a small UN monitoring mission - three years into the war. ECOWAS member states supported rival factions and actually exacerbated the conflict before ultimately helping to resolve it.

In Rwanda, the international community's failure to respond appropriately to genocide was deplorable and led to two bloody rebellions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The latest has engulfed the DRC with soldiers from eight African countries engaged in combat. The Council's "hands-off" approach isn't working. Its reliance on the Southern African Development Community and the Organization of African Unity to resolve the crisis has only inflamed it.

In short, the Security Council has inappropriately left African regional organizations and countries to take responsibility for dealing with armed conflicts. There is certainly merit to promoting "African solutions to African problems," but current crises in Africa are extremely complicated and African regional organizations are ill-prepared to respond on their own. While not every conflict can be resolved through the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces, the Council's failure to authorize appropriate numbers of blue helmets with more robust mandates has had grave consequences. Sierra Leone is simply the latest example.

Eric G. Berman and Katie E. Sams are visiting researchers at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, in Geneva.

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