War-torn Sierra Leone gets help from the West

The UN today decides on an international court, and the US will send troops to train peacekeepers.

The rebel leader accused of seizing Sierra Leone's diamond mines to finance his rebel group's exceptionally brutal, decade-long civil war, may soon have to face an international court.

Today, the United Nations Security Council will consider a resolution, pushed by the United States, to establish a war-crimes court for the tiny West African nation.

At the top of the agenda would be the prosecution of Foday Sankoh who instigated the war and led a campaign of terror, including drugging and brainwashing children into becoming his gun-toting and machete-wielding soldiers.

"It is very important that the people, Foday Sankoh and his henchmen, who have committed these war crimes, be brought to justice," said US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke after circulating the draft to other security council members.

And on Tuesday, the US announced it will send hundreds of American soldiers to Nigeria this month to train and equip West African battalions that are being sent to bolster government troops and UN peacekeepers there, The New York Times reported yesterday.

A senior administration official was quoted as saying the US had "gone through an agonizing reappraisal" of its policy toward Sierra Leone, where Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) - notorious for chopping off the limbs of civilians - is waging war against the government and in May kidnapped hundreds of UN peacekeepers.

The proposed tribunal may be located in Freetown, depending on the security conditions. It would be a hybrid of government and international participants, similar to the one under consideration for Cambodia, and therefore different from the independent ones for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, located in The Hague and Arusha, respectively.

US officials contend that a tribunal like the ones in Arusha and The Hague would be too expensive and time-consuming to create. They want the court to be financed by voluntary contributions and appeals to be made to the tribunal in The Hague to reduce costs.

But prosecuting Sankoh and removing him from the government may not be that easy.

After receiving a death sentence from his country in 1998 for his prosecution of the war, his RUF overran Freetown, killing 6,000 people in just one month. Months later, capitalizing on a weak government desperate for peace and an international community unwilling to intervene militarily, he signed the Lom peace accord - which the US helped negotiate - granting him amnesty and in the process left death row to become the country's vice-president.

Human rights activists denounced the amnesty, prompting UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to reserve the right to prosecute the RUF under international laws.

"The Lom agreement created this amnesty provision in domestic law, but the UN did not accept it in international law, and therefore an international character to the court was required," Ambassador Holbrooke explained.

US officials also insist that Sankoh and his co-conspirators could be tried under domestic laws, since they had broken the treaty. "Our position is that Foday Sankoh and the other members of the RUF have disqualified themselves from the proviso of the Lom accord. They are no longer abiding by Lom so those provisions are no longer relevant," says Nancy Soderberg, the US mission's top Africa expert.

But the Sierra Leone government says it has not thrown out the agreement or revoked the amnesty. "Even though the RUF has violated several parts of it, the Lom agreement still stands," says Sylvester Rowe, Sierra Leone's ambassador for political affairs at its mission to the UN.

Sierra Leone's government, which requested the UN's assistance in creating a special court, wants to limit the court's jurisdiction to crimes committed after the July 1999 Lom accord. But most of the serious events took place before then, and the US insists that the net should be broad.

As a compromise, a draft resolution to be considered today uses vague language. The court should have jurisdiction "over senior Sierra Leonean nationals who bear the greatest responsibility for the most systematic and egregious criminal violations ... in particular those whose actions have posed, since July 7, 1999, serious threats to peace and security in the region," it says.

" 'In particular' has a double meaning. It could mean for example or it could mean a tentative focus on it," says Ruth Wedgwood, a professor of international law at Yale Law School. "I take it almost as a statement of prosecutorial guideline: to give top priority to the most recent violators. It has a directive connotation."

Human rights activists fear that prosecutions would be made only against RUF leaders.

"Violations of human rights were committed by all sides in the conflict," says Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

"Most clearly by the RUF, but also by some associated with the government, including powerful personalities such as Johnny Koroma," Mr. Takirambudde goes on to say.

Prosecuting Mr. Koroma would place the government in a difficult bind. Though he overthrew President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1997 and invited Sankoh to join his military dictatorship, Koroma has refashioned himself as the lead military figure fighting the RUF.

Though the draft resolution does not exclude figures such as Koroma from prosecution, it appears unlikely that the net would be cast to include him.

The prosecutor would have that discretion, and the Sierra Leone government wants its own man in the top job. Regardless of who heads the prosecution office, cooperation from Mr. Kabbah's government could largely determine who makes the indictment short list.

"As in Rwanda you're dependent on your host. The Rwanda tribunal has jurisdiction to look at what the [Tutsi commanders] did. But they don't dare do it because they would get booted out of Kigali if they tried," says Professor Wedgwood.

*Material from wire services was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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