UN Approves Assistance Team to Move in After Peacekeeper Exit

Integrated Regional Information Networks
September 1, 2005

Human rights and government accountability will top the list of priorities for a new UN assistance team, set to step into Sierra Leone after the last peacekeepers leave at the end of the year. The UN Security Council unanimously approved the establishment of the UN Integrated Office for Sierra Leone (UNIOSL) in a resolution late Wednesday, saying it was crucial that international support continued to help the West African country rebound from a decade of civil war. The last of the blue-hated peacekeepers in Sierra Leone are due to leave this December, just over six years after the UN peacekeeping mission (UNAMSIL) first went in. At its height, UNAMSIL comprised 17,000 troops. It has been gradually drawn down, with around 3,200 still in the country.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a report earlier this year that while Sierra Leone had made impressive progress toward peace since the official end of the war in early 2002, the country remains fragile and needed "concrete steps aimed at addressing the root causes of the conflict and nurturing a culture of human rights." The new assistance mission was given an initial mandate of one year beginning on 1 January, 2006. UNIOSL will help the government reinforce human rights, fulfill the Millennium Development Goals, enhance transparency and conduct free and fair elections in 2007, according to the Security Council resolution. The new team will also coordinate UN efforts to deal with arms trafficking, human trafficking and illegal trade in the volatile sub-region, as well as provide security for the UN-backed Special Court of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leonean human rights and civil society groups say they hope the new UN team will also help guarantee the implementation of the country's truth and reconciliation report - the only means, they say, to ensure the country avoids sliding back into conflict.

The 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone shocked the world with its images of drugged up youngsters hacking off the arms, legs, ears and lips of innocent civilians. While those deemed to bear the greater responsibility for the atrocities are currently on trial at the Special Court, human rights activists say tensions still exist in the wider community and the government must help the victims. "It's a good thing to have this UN integrated office but it must look to channel its energies to implementing the truth and reconciliation recommendations," said Oluniyi Robbin-Coker, a Sierra Leonean living in New York who is chair of the Civil Coalition for Truth and Reconciliation. Civil society and human rights groups earlier this year expressed dismay at a government strategy for implementing the TRC recommendations, calling it vague and noncommittal. "The UN must help to establish and fund the [government] TRC follow-up committee and work with it hand-in-hand... to tackle the root causes of the war - poverty, lack of accountability and a culture of impunity," Robbin-Coker said. He said his group has already spoken with UN Development Program representatives and the Sierra Leonean ambassador to the UN to raise its concerns.

Even though the UN is not pulling out of Sierra Leone, some residents are starting to get worried about UNAMSIL's exit, according to John Caulker, head of the human rights group Forum of Conscience. "Lately people are starting to get concerned, not only in terms of security but also governance," he told IRIN by phone from the capital, Freetown. "With the presence of UNAMSIL there is an eye on the government," he said. "People fear that the government could go back to old ways, of making decisions with no regard for the population or civil society, with no checks and balances." Residents in Freetown said one of the greatest impacts of UNAMSIL's draw down has been and will be economic.Sierra Leone is ranked the world's poorest country by the UN Human Development Index. About 70 percent of its six million people still live on less than a dollar a day. Fewer foreign soldiers mean fewer wealthier clients pumping their dollars into the local economy.

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