Visit to Sierra Leone – August 1999

30 August to 4 September 1999

The Special Representative undertook a mission to Sierra Leone — his third visit there — and Guinea from 30 August to 4 September 1999. He met with senior government officials, the Force Commander of the Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and representatives of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). He also held discussions with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sierra Leone, Francis Okelo, the United Nations country team, representatives of ICRC, local and international non-governmental organizations and a cross-section of civil society leaders.

The visit had the following objectives:

  1. To assess first-hand the conditions of children in Sierra Leone following the ending of the war and the signing of the Lomé Peace Agreement;
  2. To review progress made in carrying out Commitments made during the previous visit in May 1998;
  3. To assess the situation of Sierra Leonean refugee children in Guinea;
  4. To identify key measures and initiatives needed to ensure the protection, rights and welfare of children in the aftermath of the war in Sierra Leone.

The Special Representative noted that the children of Sierra Leone have suffered beyond belief in the eight-year war. Many children have been deliberately maimed, with their limbs brutally cut off. In the month of January 1999 alone, over 4,000 children were abducted during the incursion of the RUF and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) into Freetown. It is estimated that 60 per cent of abducted children are girls, the vast majority of whom are reported to have been sexually abused. More than 10,000 children have been serving as child soldiers in the three main fighting groups, the RUF, the AFRC and the Civil Defence Forces. Over 3 million Sierra Leoneans – two thirds of the total population – have been displaced by war within and outside their country, more than 60 per cent of them children. There are more than 3,000 street children in Freetown alone. Many children are suffering from serious psychosocial trauma.

In view of what the Special Representative witnessed on the ground in Sierra Leone and drawing on previous Commitments made to him during his visit in May 1998, he put forward a special agenda for action for the children of Sierra Leone. The 15 point agenda contains measures and initiatives aimed at ensuring the rehabilitation and welfare of children in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the war. The measures are as follows:

  • National commission for children of Sierra Leone. There is an urgent need to establish a national commission for children to ensure that the protection and welfare of children will be a central concern in the aftermath of the war and that this will be reflected in national priority- setting, policy-making and resource allocation. This proposal has been welcomed by the Government as well as by civil society organizations and leaders;
  • Child protection and the mandate of the United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone. As a general policy, the Special Representative has proposed that child protection and welfare should be an explicit priority in the mandate of every United Nations peace operation and that a senior child protection advocate should be attached to such operations to promote the implementation of that component of the mandate. These two new elements have now been incorporated into the mandate and staffing of the expanded United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL);
    Rehabilitation of amputees. A whole new community of persons has suddenly emerged in Sierra Leone, persons without limbs, as a result of a diabolical practice of brutally cutting off the hands and legs of victims. This is a completely new phenomenon, one to which the community has no ready response. A special programme is needed for this category of victims, to provide trauma counselling, physical therapy and technical as well as material support;
    Sexually abused children. The extensive and systematic sexual abuse visited upon young girls is one of the most painful and traumatic legacies of the war in Sierra Leone. The victims’ trauma is compounded by social stigma and reticence to address the issue. A special programme is needed to address the special needs of this group of victims, including their health needs; such a programme should also include a Campaign of sensitization of local communities;
    Access to and release of abducted children. A large number of children were abducted during the war, most of whom still remain behind rebel lines; gaining access to them and obtaining their release is a most pressing concern. The Special Representative demanded that the RUF leadership agree to and facilitate the necessary security arrangements for a humanitarian team to visit the zones under their control. The RUF leadership has agreed to this and discussions are under way to send a team led by UNOMSIL and UNICEF;
    Demobilization of child combatants. The disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of child combatants needs special attention. When the Special Representative visited Sierra Leone in May 1998, a joint task force for the demobilization of child combatants was constituted for that purpose, comprising UNOMSIL, UNICEF, ECOMOG and Civil Defence Forces (and now RUF) representatives. With the end of the war, there is an urgent need for the group to take charge of an effective process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration for child ex combatants. The work of the joint task force feeds directly into the overall programme and activities of the National Committee for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration;
    Recruitment and use of children. During the Special Representative’s visit to Sierra Leone in May 1998, the Government and the Civil Defence Forces made a commitment not to recruit children under the age of 18; they have reiterated that commitment ever since and, indeed, this has now been incorporated in the Lomé Peace Agreement and the Human Rights Manifesto. The same commitment has now been made by the RUF leadership. The Special Representative calls on all the parties to abide by that commitment;
    Displaced children. More than 3 million persons have been displaced by the war in Sierra Leone, over 60 per cent of them children. More resources are needed to increase the capacity of relief agencies and non-governmental organizations to respond to the needs of some 2.5 million people displaced within the country who live in difficult conditions, with overcrowded shelters and inadequate relief provisions. Guinea has assumed a heavy burden on behalf of the international community to host nearly half a million refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia. The donor community needs to provide more support to Guinea as a host country and to UNHCR to enable them to shoulder that responsibility more effectively;
    Rehabilitation of basic Educational and medical services. Basic social facilities and services were largely destroyed during the years of war. The rehabilitation of services that benefit children, especially Educational and medical facilities, in particular in rural areas, should constitute a clear priority in the post-conflict recovery programme;
    Reinforcing traditional norms. The conduct of the war, in particular the horrific atrocities, has radically undermined local value systems within Sierra Leonean society — values that traditionally have provided for the protection of civilian populations, especially children and women. All necessary support should be extended to local community leaders and non-governmental organizations who are working to revive and reinforce those values;
    Neighbourhood initiative. The zone comprising Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea has been selected as the first subregion for the development of a “neighbourhood initiative’. Cross-border threats affecting children in the neighbourhood include such issues as Small Arms flows, refugee movements, cross-border recruitment of children and family tracing and reunification. An inter-agency mission will soon visit the subregion to assess and propose concrete initiatives for that purpose;
    “Voice of Children’ project for Sierra Leone. The establishment of a “Voice of Children’ radio for the children of Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the conflict has been proposed. Such a project should provide children with much-needed information, recreation and entertainment, offer Educational programmes and promote reconciliation;
    Parliamentary caucus for children. This caucus was constituted on the occasion of the Special Representative’s previous visit to Sierra Leone. It has become an effective Advocacy group on behalf of children in and outside parliament. The caucus needs support to strengthen and expand its activities;
    Providing training for the new national army. The Government and the Chief of the Defence Staff have reiterated the commitment they made during the Special Representative’s visit in 1998 to accept assistance from United Nations agencies and relevant non-governmental organizations for training on humanitarian and human rights standards. That programme will now be organized and led by UNOMSIL and UNICEF;
    Special fund for war victims. Under the Lomé Peace Agreement, the parties made a commitment to set up a special fund for war victims. There is an urgent need for the early establishment of the fund; in that context, particular priority should be given to the special needs of amputees, sexually abused children and women, and seriously traumatized children.