Issue 10 - Article 3

Sierra Leone: an attack on humanitarianism

February 1, 1998

Western policy makers are ostensibly increasingly committed to intervening in African conflicts in a responsible and ethical manner. The protection and support of democratic and other human rights have become, at least in terms of rhetoric, the main objective of much foreign and aid policy, particularly in non-strategic areas. This has been demonstrated in Sierra Leone where the international community has acted in concert in order to promote the restoration of the democratically elected government, deposed in a coup last May. The complexities of the situation have, however, provided a serious challenge to the implementation of these new protection-oriented policies. The international community has found itself facing a real moral dilemma in Sierra Leone, concerning the efficacy of including humanitarian aid in a general embargo against the illegitimate junta. Aid agencies are worried that political considerations have been allowed to override the humanitarian needs of the civilian population and are now calling for an examination of the justification for the policy and a reaffirmation of basic humanitarian values.

Direct intervention in the conflict was delegated to ECOWAS, the regional grouping of West African states, and has been focused on an embargo against the junta which took power following the coup. Military action led by the Nigerian-dominated ECOMOG was attempted early on without success, although the recent offensive may finally achieve the desired result of dislodging the junta. Efforts at negotiations between the parties have so far produced only the ineffectual Conakry Accords, and for six months the embargo has been the weapon of choice. UN authorisation of the sanctions was sought, and the Security Council approved a limited version on arms, fuel and travel by members of the junta. ECOMOG have, however, enforced an embargo on all goods entering the country, by sea at least, and the civilian militias on the ground have attempted to limit the passage of goods internally.

In practice, humanitarian aid became part of the sanctions. The cancellation by DfID of the majority of its funding to British NGOs, the restriction of UN operations by a top security rating, and the holding up of cross-border deliveries of relief goods due to ‘administrative’ difficulties, demonstrate the united stance of the international community on this issue. The inclusion of relief goods in the general embargo is thus widely perceived as a deliberate component of the attempt to dislodge the junta. While it violates both the UN resolution as well as international law more generally, this de facto embargo has been justified on the arguable grounds that food aid in particular could have an important impact on the conflict through strengthening the control or morale of the junta.

This view derives from analyses of other conflict situations including Liberia and Rwanda, where relief aid has been shown to have fuelled conflict by providing political and economic resources to factions. Criticism of earlier failed interventions as prioritising humanitarian concerns to make up for lack of political efforts, is also offered as justification for the policy choice in Sierra Leone, which appears as a complete reversal of earlier trends towards militarised humanitarianism, as seen in Bosnia, Somalia and Northern Iraq. Agencies are worried that lessons learned from other operations are being misinterpreted to suggest that there are problems inherent in humanitarianism, rather than in its implementation and in the coherence of other policy objectives. The short-sightedness of the humanitarian embargo, which may serve to undermine longer-term work focused on tackling the roots of the conflict, is a further contentious issue.

The humanitarian community involved in Sierra Leone has attempted to address the concerns of funders and diplomats. A guiding protocol for humanitarian operations has been developed covering both principles and operations. Shared information systems, good technical and operational coordination, and relatively ‘smart’ and innovative programming, in part propelled by the high levels of local involvement in relief work, have all contributed to a potentially model humanitarian community. The neutrality of the purely humanitarian agenda of the agencies involved in Sierra Leone is unquestioned. Although it is difficult for agencies to provide actual guarantees as to the safety of their resources in such a volatile situation, it has been shown elsewhere that abuse of aid by warring factions can be minimised through careful and coordinated programming. Policies tried in Liberia such as restricting capital inputs and bulk food aid can be effective, and techniques to deal with factions on the ground have been developed in many countries.

Thus it is by no means certain that careful and neutral humanitarianism would have any major negative impact on the dynamics of the conflict, in terms of feeding the soldiers or legitimising the junta. Some observers believe that restricting the flow of resources itself contributes to the power of those in control, and embargoes have not been shown in other cases to be effective in toppling illegitimate regimes. Whatever the practical impact of the policy, however, the basic issue at stake is the calculated denial of the rights of civilians in Sierra Leone to receive humanitarian assistance. As the embargo has continued, conditions inside the country, even in areas accessible to remaining NGOs and assessment missions, have visibly deteriorated, with signs that even the resilient Sierra Leoneans may be reaching breaking point. The deadlock over the embargo begs the question as to whether there is some point of trade-off that might be reached, where the suffering of the civilian population would outweigh the political benefits of including humanitarian aid in the embargo against the junta.

Some agencies have attempted to lobby donors, with NGOs, UNICEF and WFP making public statements and representations, and continuing to work with limited funding and in-country resources. Following the recent ECOMOG and kamajor offensive and the intensifying emergency, agencies have released joint statements calling for immediate clearance for cross-border deliveries to be allowed to enter the country. Effective concerted action to promote the humanitarian agenda has however been constrained by institutional factors. The policy appears to have been sustained by a combination of diplomatic activity involving the UN in New York, and British and US diplomats. The direct precedence over UNDHA by UNDP, where deposed President Kabbah spent much of his career, at both field level and in New York, has effectively prevented DHA from playing a role as an advocate for humanitarianism. NGOs have been limited in their lobbying of DfID by their general reliance on the department for funding, and by the perceived lack of transparency, or willingness of the government to enter into dialogue on this issue.

The fundamental basis of humanitarianism, the rights of those in need to receive help regardless of political factors, as enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, appears to be under attack in Sierra Leone, and must be defended by those in the humanitarian field. As this article goes to press, the policy is in the balance. As ECOMOG and the civil militias gain control of Freetown and areas upcountry, deliveries of food and other relief goods are likely to be resumed. Agencies are worried that this will reinforce the precedent already set, of making relief conditional on political factors, and thus further undermine their independence from the donors. As well as lobbying vigorously for the separation of humanitarian aid from political agendas, agencies, both NGO and UN, must push for an examination of the impact of the policy, and of policy-makers’ justifications, in order to avoid the setting of a dangerous precedent.


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