Sierra Leone: October 3, 2000

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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently hosted a meeting with the Army Chiefs of Staff of the nine nations which have sent "peacekeeping" troops to Sierra Leone. These included Bangladesh, Ghana, Guinea, India, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, and Zambia. This was a unique meeting and marks a radical change in the direction of UN peacekeeping. In the past, UN peacekeeping operations consisted of lightly armed troops who comprised a symbolic presence between two warring sides that were actually interested in a supervised ceasefire. After the debacles in Rwanda and Zaire, the UN has come to realize that there will be times that peace must be imposed by force in order to prevent wholesale genocide. Sierra Leone is a case in point. The RUF rebels have no interest in a supervised ceasefire and have every interest in shoving the UN peacekeepers aside in their continued attempts to overthrow the government. The UN has been humiliated in numerous clashes with the RUF, which once abducted 500 UN troops and stole their equipment. The UN has come to the conclusion that the only way out of the mess in Sierra Leone is to increase the peacekeeping forces (which now stand at 12,400 troops) and provide them with heavy weapons and a broad mandate to disarm the RUF rebels by force and compel them to accept the ceasefire and peace plan. The UN mission to Sierra Leone has been characterized by serious problems. Many of the contingents arrived with ineffective or inoperable weapons. There are few up-to-date maps of the country and almost none of these have reached the frontline battalion commanders. As the mission evolved, not all of the national contingent commanders were working under the same rules or objectives. Some were trying to fight the rebels, some were trying to conduct a more traditional peacekeeping mission and unable to comprehend why the rebels were still fighting, and others were apparently just trying to keep out of the way. Many of the contingents arrived without vehicles, radios, mortars, or even tents, expecting to find that the UN had provided even the most basic of equipment. Some troops arrived with only 100 rounds of ammunition for each rifleman, expecting the traditional symbolic duty with no real need to fight. The UN has found itself in what amounts to nothing less than a war in Sierra Leone (and very nearly a war in Timor) and is scrambling to adapt to a new role which many of its officials and commanders find distinctly uncomfortable.--Stephen V Cole

 

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