PRESS BRIEFING ON SIERRA LEONE PEACE PROCESS
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
15 November 1999
The Sierra Leone peace process is at a very critical juncture, with the parties slow to implement its various parts, Carolyn McAskie, Deputy Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon. However, it was now starting to move forward.
Ms. McAskie, who headed a multi-donor mission to Sierra Leone from 7 to 13 November, said that the big priority now was to ensure that the former rebels and other ex-combatants were brought into the demobilization camps and persuaded to give up their arms. Out of a target figure of 45,000 fighters, about 1,500 had presented their weapons by last Friday.
She noted that ceasefire violations around Makeni in the north of the country seemed to have died down. Former rebel leaders Foday Sankoh and Johnny Paul Koroma had called on their field commanders to stop the fighting and present themselves for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process, which was the key to moving forward. If food to feed the ex-combatants and the funds to reintegrate them were not available once they were brought into the demobilization camps, the peace process could be threatened.
Despite the signing of the 7 July peace agreement, there were still very large tracts of the country where humanitarian assistance could not be provided to long-deprived victims, said Ms. McAskie, whose mission included representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Japan, the European Union, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
She said many in the international community found it distasteful to provide assistance in making fighters disarm before providing it to victims of the fighting. There had been a long debate over that question, but the international community and the Sierra Leonean people had accepted that until the fighters disarmed, the victims could not be reached. An appeal would be going out in Geneva next week, as part of the consolidated appeal process that the Secretary-General would be making on behalf of the United Nations system.
Part of that appeal, Ms. McAskie said, would be a special fund for Sierra Leone, which would include an appeal for funds to ensure that the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration packages worked. Without that there could be serious problems for the peace process. There were half a million or more Sierra Leonean refugees in camps in neighbouring countries, who were waiting for peace before returning home.
For that reason, the mission had also visited one of the refugee camps in Guinea, she said. Some of the refugees had been living there for 10 years, in reasonable but very basic conditions. They would not leave until after the disarmament process. Once it was over, there would be a large and sudden movement of refugees returning home.
She said that the mission had tried to deliver the message that the international community did have its eyes on Sierra Leone; that the Security Council had debated the matter; that the donors were making a much greater effort for the country than they had at any time in the past; and that this was the moment for Sierra Leoneans to commit themselves to peace and to work with the international community. But people themselves on the ground had to decide that they wanted peace and that everyone was going to make it work.
Ms. McAskie stressed that there were tremendous problems to deal with, not only the incredible mutilations that had shocked the world, but also the situation of women in Sierra Leone, which was one of the worst in Africa. The incidence of rape and sexual abuse in the civil war had been extremely high and an enormous amount of work would be needed to heal the trauma. In addition, the number of missing children was still impossible to assess. It was probably much higher than the 2,000 to 5,000 generally thought.
Asked when the consolidated appeal would be launched, Ms. McAskie replied that the Secretary-General would be in Geneva on Tuesday, 23 November, and that the whole process would be launched at 3 p.m. that day. The following day, there would be the individual country briefings, of which Sierra Leone would be one. The total appeal was $71 million for the peace process, as well as for agency programmes for the year 2000.
Responding to a question about the situation of child combatants, she said they were seriously traumatized. The mission had been surprised that while girls had been recruited mainly for sexual purposes, as many girls as boys were carrying arms. The children had been subjected to physical abuse, to deprivation and to drugs, as well as having been out of school for years. Some of them would be traumatized for the rest of their lives.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), other agencies and donors were putting in place special counselling programmes, she said. It was possible to return a reasonable proportion of those coming in to their families. The families would then need support in dealing with those children.
How did Sierra Leoneans feel about the amnesty for former rebels who had committed atrocities? another correspondent asked.
Ms. McAskie said that had been a very bitter pill to swallow. There was an understanding that the amnesty would not cover the most flagrant human rights abuses, and that those issues would have to be dealt with. Once the situation stabilized, the Government hoped to put in place a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as provided in the peace agreement, but the details of that were still not available.
She noted that since the signing of the peace accord, it was only now that the rebel leaders had come into Freetown to join the Government and that the national commissions on demobilization, reintegration and peace consolidation were being put together. If that slow pace was maintained, it would be very difficult to consolidate the peace.
She told another journalist that some non-governmental organizations were unwilling to participate in funding the disarmament and demobilization part of the DDR process. They would fund reintegration as well as a commission on reconstruction, rehabilitation and resettlement.
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