The Sierra Leone Web




2 July 2003

The role of the British Government

The British Government is delighted to see the TRC up and running. We have always believed that the TRC is a vital tool to help in the healing process after a decade of death and destruction.

The British Government has already provided the TRC with a large dossier outlining British policy at every stage of the conflict. These are public documents which are available on the FCO website and Hansards. There is therefore very little to add today.

It would be useful to recall that the sole objective of the British Government's involvement throughout Sierra Leone's long crisis was the restoration of peace and democracy. We fought hard to achieve both of these. The restoration of peace and democracy were the guiding principles that determined our policy. The key post-conflict objective of the British Government is to help Sierra Leone rebuild its institutions and infrastructure destroyed in the course of a decade of war. With strong and democratically accountable institutions, Sierra Leone should never again experience such a terrible time. We are conscious of the fact that the very heart of Sierra Leonean society has been damaged and hurt by the long crisis. Our support for the work of the TRC therefore goes without saying.

There are certain key moments in the decade of war which are worth a brief mention. No sooner had the RUF rebellion begun than Junior Officers mounted a coup against the APC government. The British Government worked tirelessly to return Sierra Leone to civilian rule. We even gave scholarships to the Junta leaders to study in the UK as a means of persuading them to step down. We supported the efforts of civil society and others through funding for the Bintumani I and II Conferences, which decided on the sort of democratic system that Sierra Leoneans wanted. We were heavily criticised by outsiders at the time for pressing for elections when the RUF rebellion was still in full swing and some parts of the country were inaccessible. But Sierra Leoneans wanted to get the military out. Our logic was simple. We supported the holding of elections in 1996 as a means of drawing the RUF into the political process. Unfortunately, they refused to take part and began their campaign of chopping off limbs to prevent people voting.

The elections, the first multi-party elections to be held in Sierra Leone since the mid 1960s, brought President Kabbah to power. The British Government supported his decision to open peace talks with the RUF. This eventually resulted in the first peace agreement, The Abidjan Accord, signed in Nov 1996.But it soon became clear that the RUF leadership had no intention of abiding by its terms. Soon afterwards, the military struck again, ousting President Kabbah's government which went into exile in Conakry. The British High Commissioner, Peter Penfold also moved to Conakry. This unusual move was a sign that the UK Government was serious about supporting democracy. The British government worked tirelessly thereafter to have the democratically elected government restored to power. We succeeded in getting the UNSC to impose an arms embargo on the Junta and gave material and financial assistance to the ECOMOG force which intervened to enforce peace and provide security. Happily, the democratically elected government was restored in February 1998. But elements of the Army were by then disloyal and worked in collusion with the RUF rebels which continued the pattern of maiming and killing innocent Sierra Leoneans.

The British Government again supported the government when President Kabbah decided to open new peace talks with the RUF. The Lomé Agreement of July 1999 was signed. The UK Government was not a signatory, nor one of the moral guarantors. The Lomé Agreement's terms were generous, offering the RUF ministerial posts and other privileges in return for an end to the rebellion. These concessions were controversial inside Sierra Leone, as was the blanket amnesty offered to the RUF. But they were seen as the price for peace.

The Lomé agreement provided for a UN Peacekeeping Operation to monitor the peace and provide security. The British Government lobbied hard to get the force up to the size required for the job. But in May 2000 the RUF took UN peacekeepers hostage and threatened to overrun Freetown. The British Government's response was swift and robust. British troops were sent to Sierra Leone to secure the airport and other key points while the Royal Navy sent ships as a back up. This action averted the threat to the democratically-elected government and put the RUF on the back foot.

There is one final point we should make. It took us and others in the international community some years to realise that the RUF was not a wholly indigenous movement. It was only in the late 1990s that it was fully realised that Charles Taylor was behind the RUF, was using the RUF, and exchanged Sierra Leone diamonds for guns with the RUF leadership. Once this relationship was fully understood, the British Government worked hard to get the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Liberia in an attempt the break the Taylor/RUF relationship. The RUF rebellion continued far beyond its natural life because of the support it received from Taylor - and his allies.

The British Government wishes the TRC well in its work. We look forward to its Report. We are committed to the peaceful and successful future for Sierra Leone. Thank you for giving us time to say a few words about British policy towards Sierra Leone during the conflict years.