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Sierra Leone

Who says Britain's foreign policy can't make a difference?

Sierra Leoneans hope for a better future
Sierra Leoneans hope for a better future
Not the Sierra Leonean voters, who on 14 May voted peacefully, many queuing from early in the morning, several hours before the polling stations opened. The declaration of a public holiday added to the carnival atmosphere.

At the last elections in 1996, Sierra Leoneans were voting under the shadow of amputations and other atrocities perpetrated by the brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels. Now those same rebels are participating in elections as a legitimate political party, committed to peace. One former rebel leader joked that in a few days he would be sitting in State House, only this time via ballots and not bullets.

Just two years ago Sierra Leone stood (again) on the brink of collapse, as the rebels turned their backs on the Lome Peace Agreement and attacked UN peacekeepers. Over half the country was under the control of rebels. Almost half of the population had been displaced. It was the rapid deployment of our Spearhead Battalion to Freetown in May 2000 to evacuate British nationals and support the UN peacekeeping force that saved the day.

This was British foreign policy in action. A proactive, joined-up approach to conflict resolution in Africa, heralded by the creation of a Whitehall-wide Africa Conflict Prevention Fund. We worked closely with the Government of Sierra Leone and the UN to give Sierra Leone an opportunity to enjoy peace for the first time in a decade.

British troops not only helped to secure Freetown, but have provided a comprehensive training programme for Sierra Leone's demoralised armed forces, so that Sierra Leone can defend itself in future against rebel threats. The Prime Minister's commitment to Kofi Annan to back up the UN peacekeeping mission with an “Over-The-Horizon Force” was fulfilled through a series of high profile military exercises and naval manoeuvres.

Former combatants have renounced violence
Former combatants have renounced violence
Britain lobbied hard to secure good quality troops for the UN peacekeeping mission. We expanded our support to the Sierra Leone Police, who would need to take on the primary responsibility for security within the country, once peace was restored. We provided assistance and advice to the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, through which some 50,000 former combatants have disarmed and are being given the opportunity to start new, more normal lives.

And we have helped focus the world’s attention on the root causes of the conflict. Sierra Leone's diamond reserves allowed the rebels to purchase weapons and prolong the conflict. We placed this deadly link between diamonds and conflict, particularly in Sierra Leone and Angola, in the international spotlight. Through the Kimberley Process, we secured international action to regulate the exports of rough diamonds. All Sierra Leoneans should now benefit from the increase in official exports of this precious resource.

But you can’t solve Sierra Leone’s problems without looking at the regional context. President Taylor and his kleptocratic regime in neighbouring Liberia were the rebels' principal backers. They armed the rebels and bankrolled their murderous activities in return for diamonds. We secured UN Security Council Agreement to sanctions against Liberia in March 2001. These sanctions have just been renewed. Taylor is paying a high price for his repeated attempts to destabilise the region. Internationally isolated, his regime is now suffering from a bloody conflict with internal dissidents.

But it is the ordinary Liberians, who suffer most from the conflict and Taylor's misrule. Immediate agreement to a ceasefire and commitment to a real dialogue about resolving the conflict are essential to restoring the stability and peace Liberians deserve.

Rebuilding Sierra Leone
Rebuilding Sierra Leone
The chance to develop a strong democracy is not only a dividend of peace, but should also act as a bulwark against a return to conflict. The elections were the first step in this long process. Held less then four months after the ending of the war, the elections were not perfect. But, as the international observers pointed out, the shortcomings could not and did not derail the people's enthusiasm to vote freely.

Like so much else in Sierra Leone, democracy is weak. Much remains to be done to rebuild shattered institutions and fractured communities. President Kabbah and his new government face a daunting task. But the Sierra Leonean people can now vote in peace, free from fear. They can walk the streets of their cities, and travel around their country. They can begin again to plan for a better future. A future Britain should be proud to have helped create. And which we will continue to help them realise.

Our experience in Sierra Leone shows that Britain can make a difference. That it is possible to halt the violent conflicts, which scar Africa and condemn millions of Africans to lives of misery.
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