The Call for Tough Arms Control: Voices from Sierra Leone

Publication date

09 Jan 2006

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Fighting began in Sierra Leone in March 1991, when a small number of rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) crossed the border from Liberia and began attacking civilians. By the time the war was declared over, tens of thousands had been killed out of a population of five million, thousands had been mutilated or raped, and an estimated 10,000 children had been abducted to be child soldiers. Up to two-thirds of the population had been displaced from their homes, and another 600,000 had fled the country. The deep roots of Sierra Leone's 11 years of war went back decades, involving corrupt governments that alienated the country's youth and all but destroyed basic institutions, including parliament, the police, and the civil service. This dissatisfaction led to support for the rebels in the early years of the war. Inadequate government control of the armed forces permitted coups and allowed government soldiers to switch from one side to the other. Another major source of fuel for the conflict was the support that the RUF rebels received from Charles Taylor, then president of Liberia, who had wider ambitions for power in West Africa. However, there was one factor that underpinned all of the others in sustaining the violence, and that was the continued supply of weapons, many of them paid for by the illegal sale of diamonds. Sierra Leone does not manufacture weapons. The outside world had to be prepared to supply them, and supply them it did. During all these years, both the countries that provided the weapons, and the countries through which they were shipped, failed to stop the flow of arms and ammunition to the rebels in Sierra Leone. The even wider failure is that of the international community at large which, even after these atrocities and others elsewhere, has failed to take the necessary measures to control the international arms trade. The rest of the world must take responsibility for the arms it supplies. To do that, governments should agree a new international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).