The Sierra Leone Code of Conduct
by Paul Harvey, Children's Aid Direct June 2003

The origins of the current Code of Conduct for Sierra Leone date back to 1996 when agencies developed standards for child protection activities. This prompted dialogue on the need for a broader code for humanitarian agencies which was formalised at a workshop held in Conakry during the Junta period, and adopted by over 40 agencies.

Notwithstanding current events, the need for a revised code came about following the restoration of the democratic government in February 1998. In particular, the Conakry code had incorporated a ‘no-guns policy’, the interpretation of which had caused some controversy. In addition, a number of agencies had not taken part in the Conakry process and no local NGOs had been present. The revised code would, it was hoped, broaden the level of participation among a wider range of agencies and revitalise the process of disseminating the code to other concerned parties – notably ECOMOG and the government.

Process and output

A three-day workshop, with an additional dissemination day for the government and ECOMOG officials, was convened to revise the code. Over 30 representatives from Sierra Leonean NGOs, as well as international NGOs, the ICRC, UN and donor agencies attended. The stated objectives of the workshop were to review and update the Code of Conduct with the dual aim of:

  1. reinforcing a self-regulatory and coordinated approach for the delivery of humanitarian assistance;
  2. ensuring the parties to the conflict recognise and observe the impartiality and inviolability of humanitarian principles.

Key questions concerned the phrasing of the section on the use of armed escorts, and whether or not to refer to relations between the NGO community and the government. A consensus was reached that armed escorts should only be used as a last resort, and criteria that would need to be met before an armed escort was used were agreed. With regard to NGO/government relations it was decided that the code would only refer to principles of humanitarian operations, and that the issue of relations between the two would be left to a separate workshop organised and planned by the government at a later date.

A revised code was eventually agreed. This is a signed document and a committee – consisting of representatives from international NGOs, national NGOs, the UN, donors, with the ICRS as observers – has been given responsibility for promoting the code and dealing with disputes arising over its interpretation and implementation.

Validity of the code

While the workshop was able to draw on experience from Sudan, Liberia and Afghanistan in terms of their Codes of Conduct, the question arose as to whether the Sierra Leone code was merely climbing on a humanitarian principles bandwagon or whether the process was actually useful. It was generally agreed that the process was beneficial for the following reasons:

  • The process of holding the workshop was itself beneficial as it brought together most of the humanitarian community and ensured a broad understanding and agreement on core humanitarian principles.
  • The involvement of Sierra Leonean NGOs was particularly important as they had not participated in the development of the Conakry code and their participation will ensure a broader commitment to the revised code.
  • The workshop provided a forum for discussion of key problems facing the humanitarian community – notably the problem of restricted access and the question of when, and in what circumstances, the use of armed escorts would be justified.
  • The agreement that the code will be a signed document and that a committee will be formed to oversee dissemination and implementation is a key strengthening of the existing code.

If the code is to have any real impact on humanitarian operations the dissemination process will clearly be crucial. This is now being planned by the Code of Conduct Committee. Several key points should be noted:

  • Not all humanitarian agencies were present at the workshop. Identifying those agencies not represented and seeking their commitment, particularly among Sierra Leone NGOs, will be a key first step.
  • Dissemination needs to begin in individual agencies. Each agency will need to ensure that all staff understand what the code means for their work in practical terms.
  • Ensuring that other key parties in Sierra Leone, notably ECOMOG, the CDF and the government, understand and support the code will be crucial.
  • The committee will be able to draw and build on existing dissemination experience: Concern Universal was involved in disseminating the Conakry code and the ICRC has been conducting its own dissemination campaign, based on humanitarian principles.

Although the current situation in Sierra Leone makes the revision of the code appear a somewhat redundant exercise, it is clear that when access becomes possible again the issues raised by the code are likely to be more important than ever. In particular, if the rebels remain in control of large parts of the country the question of how to gain access to these areas while maintaining neutrality, and with the agreement of the democratically elected government, will become even more critical.

For details contact:

Paul Harvey
c/o Children’s Aid Direct
12 Portman Road
Reading, Berkshire
UK
RG30 1EA
Tel: (+44) 118  958 4000
Fax: (+44) 118 958 8988
Email: <child.aid@virgin.net>
Website: <www.cad.org.uk>

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