After nine years of savage fighting, there is peace in Sierra Leone. In Togo last week, African nations mediated an agreement between the government and Revolutionary United Front guerrillas that offers the small West African nation of 4.5 million people a future. There are no guarantees, however. A previous ceasefire, negotiated in 1996, broke down within weeks. A similar fate could befall the most recent deal. It will take concerted and sustained intervention by the rest of the world to see that peace endures in Sierra Leone.
During the bloody civil war, tens of thousands of people were murdered, tortured and raped; half of the country’s population has been displaced. In December and January alone, more than 5,000 people were killed in fighting in the capital city of Freetown. Few of the victims have been soldiers. The United Nations has accused militias of conducting systematic terror campaigns against civilians. Yet as part of the peace settlement, an amnesty has been granted to the 20,000 rebel troops. The U.N. has protested that war crimes should not be excused under the deal, but it is unlikely to pursue offenders. The price of peace in Sierra Leone may well be justice.
Reconciliation will require far more than turning the other cheek. In a visit to Freetown last month, Ms. Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the country has been “wrecked.” She also pointedly noted that “the human rights situation and needs of Sierra Leone . . . exceeds those of Kosovo, and yet the international community pays more attention to Kosovo than Sierra Leone.” Sadly, that is not hyperbole. The U.N. spends about 11 cents a day on African refugees, while it spends $1.50 each day on each Kosovo refugee.
Now, there is a chance to correct that appalling imbalance. Sierra Leone makes an excellent test case because the price of Western intervention need not be high. Outside forces will be needed to police the agreement, but the bulk of those troops can come from African nations. An African-led peace force, with an estimated 10,000 Nigerian soldiers, is already in the country. The U.N. is only expected to send some 3,000 troops.
The West can move the peace process forward by investing its time and its attention, by committing diplomatic personnel and promising economic aid to help rebuild the country. Every contribution will help. Peace has been welcomed by all the people of Sierra Leone, but tensions remain high. The deal calls for the RUF to take four of 18 Cabinet seats in the new government and an equal number of deputy ministerial posts. Mr. Foday Sankoh, head of the RUF, will lead a commission to oversee natural resources and reconstruction of the country. Ultimately, power sharing, the core of the peace agreement, may prove easier to negotiate than practice.
Other African leaders will be watching events in Sierra Leone intently. While the people of Freetown were celebrating, other heads of state were gathered in Lusaka, Zambia to initial a ceasefire agreement in the 11-month conflict in Congo. Unfortunately, that outcome is even less certain. Although leaders of six central African nations — Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola — signed the agreement, some of the rebels they support did not. The signatories claim that they can force the guerrillas to accept the terms of the ceasefire, but that is not necessarily true.
The rebels fighting in Congo are a fractious bunch; in addition to battling the government of President Laurent Kabila, they have also split several times since the war began. The squabbles among themselves are as virulent as their disagreements with Mr. Kabila. Previous agreements have floundered on their inability to get all the rebel groups to agree to the terms.
If the bitter foes in Sierra Leone can make peace, then there is hope for Congo, too. Both depend on active involvement of outside powers. A curious argument was made during the course of the NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia. Opponents of the air war asserted that taking action in Kosovo was hypocritical since equal or more devastating atrocities were being committed elsewhere in the world. It is true that Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians have been the most recent beneficiaries of the “CNN-effect,” but that does not make the U.S.-led intervention wrong. Unless, of course, it leads to fatigue and a reluctance to get involved in other equally important causes. Now, the West has a chance to prove the cynics wrong.
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