Not long ago, the West African nation of Sierra Leone was home to the world’s biggest peacekeeping mission. Today, troops from that country are donning blue helmets and serving the UN in other hotspots around the globe. This is just one of the remarkable stories to emerge as the United Nations now winds down the political mission that has operated in the country over the past six years to ensure that the hard-won peace would hold.
Sierra Leone used to be synonymous with brutality. The savage, decade-long war there was marked by appalling atrocities against civilians.
Shocked into action, the world responded by backing a series of United Nations peacekeeping and political missions. In the process, the international community paved the way for breakthroughs that will resonate far beyond Sierra Leone for years to come.
We must give full credit where it is due: The peace I witnessed at the closing ceremony in Freetown this month is first and foremost an accomplishment of the Sierra Leonean people, who showed tremendous resolve to heal and rebuild. The UN is proud to have supported them – and we thank them for proving our value.
Sierra Leone saw many UN “firsts”, hosting the UN’s first multi-dimensional peacekeeping operation with political, security, humanitarian, and national recovery mandates. The UN Peacebuilding Commission made its first-ever visit to Sierra Leone. Our final mission there was led by the first senior UN official heading a unified political and development presence.
The United Nations was proud to help set up the Special Court for Sierra Leone – making it the first country in Africa to establish, with UN participation, a tribunal on its own territory to address the most serious international crimes.
When the Special Court closed last year, it was the first of the UN and UN-backed tribunals to successfully complete its mandate. The Special Court’s sentencing of former Liberian President Charles Taylor was the first conviction of a former head of state since Nuremberg – sending a stern warning that even top leaders must pay for their crimes. Other trials saw first-ever convictions for attacks against UN peacekeepers, forced marriage as a crime against humanity, and the use of child soldiers.
These breakthrough accomplishments added to a solid record of achievements. UN blue helmets disarmed more than 75,000 ex-fighters, including hundreds of child soldiers, and destroyed more than 42,000 weapons and 1.2 million rounds of ammunition.
The UN assisted more than half a million Sierra Leonean refugees and internally displaced persons to return home and supported training for thousands of local police.
The UN helped the government to combat illicit diamond mining that fuelled the conflict, and to establish control over the affected areas. With the UN’s help, Sierra Leone’s citizens voted in successive free and fair elections for the first time in their history.
Since its establishment six years ago as a civilian political mission, the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office helped Sierra Leone to consolidate progress, addressing tensions that could have caused a relapse into conflict while strengthening institutions and promoting human rights. It helped the government to bolster the political process, emphasising dialogue and tolerance, and further strengthened the national police, even supporting the establishment of the first Transnational Organised Crime Unit in West Africa.
Our final mission is departing Sierra Leone, but a United Nations country team will remain until long-term development takes root, supporting good governance, quality education, health services, and other essential conditions for progress.
Other countries now mired in fighting, divided by hatred and wounded by atrocities, can draw hope from Sierra Leone. Its resilient people have given peacekeeping their greatest possible vote of confidence by sending troops to serve where the UN flag flies today. They understand that national goodwill backed by international support can enable even the most devastated areas to enjoy lasting peace.