Peace at Any Cost?
By Kevin G. Lowther
Kevin G. Lowther is Africare's former regional director for Southern Africa. This article was first published as an editorial in The Keene Sentinel (May 11, 2000). Lowther was editor of The Sentinel's editorial page from 1971 to 1978.
Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, in an impassioned op-ed article in the May 9 Washington Post, says that he will block funding for United Nations peacekeepers in Sierra Leone until the Clinton Administration pursues "a just peace" in the small West African nation.
Having left New Hampshire in 1963 to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, I have watched with anguish as the country has descended into its own special hell. I agree with him that the peace agreement is deeply flawed. It grants amnesty for the numerous atrocities committed by the rebel Revolutionary United Front and gives the RUF control of Sierra Leone's main source of income: diamonds.
Senator Gregg chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary Appropriations. In this capacity, he has refused to release $96 million already approved in this year's federal budget for peacekeeping in Sierra Leone.
Without these funds, the United Nations will be unable to sustain its planned troop level of 11,000. The 8,700 already there have been powerless to disarm the rebel fighters of the Revolutionary United Front. In fact, it is the RUF which has been brazenly disarming United Nations soldiers. Last week they fought Kenyan troopers who dared to resist, killing one.
Sierra Leone is a metaphor for all that has gone awry in Africa. The former British colony embarked on independence in 1961 with a rich dowry of alluvial diamonds. These easily-smuggled gems have proved a curse, corrupting the economy and the political system. Sierra Leone has long been considered the poorest country in the world. A third of all children die before age five. Those who survive to adolescence amid such poverty make easy recruits for the RUF.
Senator Gregg writes that "the United States must lead a multinational effort to bring true peace to Sierra Leone." I strongly concur. But hamstringing the United Nations will only undermine this objective. If Senator Gregg is genuinely concerned about preserving life, limbs and justice in Sierra Leone, he needs to ensure that the United Nations or some other international force has the resources to disarm the RUF.
This horse is out of the barn. None of the several initiatives proposed by Senator Gregg, such as building an effective Sierra Leonean army or convening a war crimes tribunal, can happen if 10,000 tough RUF fighters control virtually the entire country and its sole source of income.
If the international community is to neutralize the RUF, it cannot use half measures. It has to be willing to put enough well-trained soldiers on the ground with the capability and mandate to enforce peace, disarm the combatants and defend themselves. In Sierra Leone, however, a motley, six-nation assemblage of Blue Helmets is being routinely ambushed and stripped of its weapons and equipment. The RUF has no incentive to give up its arms -- and the diamonds -- unless compelled to do so by superior force. Eleven thousand United Nations troops are not adequate. Neither is the $96 million under Senator Gregg's seat cushion.
By itself, Sierra Leone barely registers on the scale of American national interests. But Sierra Leone's troubles threaten to destabilize much of West Africa. Nearby Nigeria and Angola account for 15 percent of our oil and have some of the largest proven reserves in the world. Access to that oil has a direct bearing on the cost of heating New Hampshire homes in winter.
The stakes in Sierra Leone go beyond oil. The United Nations is attempting to defend a democratically elected government. It is attempting to protect Sierra Leoneans from amputations, rape and murder. It is attempting to restore law, order and civility among a gracious people who long ago taught me valuable lessons in living.
Sierra Leone is a microcosm of a world in which Internet viruses and the spread of HIV, malaria and tuberculosis are the most obvious reminders that we cannot insulate ourselves from unpleasant realities abroad.
When President John F. Kennedy sent me to Sierra Leone, it was essentially to promote the advantages of Western values over Communism. In the end, international Communism self-destructed. But democratic norms have not been fully assimilated in places like Sierra Leone. If these values were worth heavy expenditures in aid during the Cold War, they are even more justified today, in terms of shaping the world we want for ourselves and others.
It will cost more than $96 million to restore true peace to Sierra Leone. It will cost considerably more if we do nothing or, to assuage our consciences, repeat the half-hearted measures which have consistently failed elsewhere.
Senator Gregg seems to appreciate the importance of making a stand in Sierra Leone. I assume that he is willing to pay the price. The $96 million is just a downpayment.
Copyright 2000, Kevin G. Lowther. All rights reserved.