Issue 11 - Article 17

Sierra Leone (May 1998)

May 1, 1998
Humanitarian Practice Network

The UK’s role in the ousting of Koromoh’s coup regime and the reinstallation of the democratically elected Kabbah has gained considerable press coverage since the beginning of May. The matter became front-page news when it emerged that a UK Customs Department was carrying out an investigation into whether UK companies (principally the private security company Sandline International and air cargo companies) had contravened the arms embargo introduced as part of UNSC Resolution 1132.

As Government Ministers have tried to distance themselves from such activities, Sandline has made public claims that Government officials were involved in efforts to re-install the Kabbah regime by force, and by implication that their Ministers must at the very least have been aware of such an involvement.

Whilst the results of enquiries and press investigations are still unclear, current reports suggest that up to $1.5 million worth of arms (principally AK 47s and mortars) were supplied to groups supporting President Kabbah. While some political commentators have argued that the ends in this case justified the means, the cost in human terms of resolving the conflict through the use of force has been very high, with thousands of civilians killed and maimed by the retreating junta forces.

If official involvement is proven, either by the Customs investigation or by the subsequent Independent Enquiry announced by the Foreign Secretary, it will highlight the inconsistencies of UK Government claims to be pursuing an ethical and transparent foreign policy and preventing the proliferation of small arms.

Officials have argued that they understood the UN resolution to apply only to the junta, but this appears to be a weak defence. Whilst the embargo on fuel and travel was subject to justifiable exemptions, the embargo on arms was imposed as a blanket, in line with the tone of the resolution calling for a peaceful outcome to the conflict. The ECOMOG forces were similarly mandated only to seek a peaceful end to the situation and exempt humanitarian goods from the embargo.

So far the issue of the de facto embargo on UK humanitarian assistance under the Koromoh regime (see Newsletter 10) has not been mentioned in the press, despite efforts by NGOs to draw it to the attention of journalists.

The halting of most funding of UK NGOs by DFID, and the failure of those responsible to establish mechanisms for the humanitarian exemption to operate, represents a further contradiction of the government’s humanitarian policies and their commitment to a needs-based response. Whilst several UK NGOs have complained about the de facto policy, the strength of feeling on the issues was shown by the NGO ActionAid which made the issue of the ‘freeze’ a central part of its submission to an enquiry on Conflict Policy by the Select Committee on International Development.


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