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Sierra Leone: providing information to soldiers about IHL and the ICRC

28-01-2007 Feature

Sgt Kamara points out that his past misconceptions about the ICRC have changed in a positive way, after he attended a dissemination session with the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces' (RSLAF) first battalion in the Kailahun district, eastern Sierra Leone.

The ICRC has had to step up its public information activities in Sierra Leone, after a rumour that it had aided and abetted the cause of one of the parties to the conflict.

The ICRC worked throughout the country during the war, in areas controlled both by government and rebel forces. Misconceptions about this humanitarian work on all sides have made it important to explain its mandate, principles and working modalities. Topics covered include the use and misuse of the Red Cross emblem, and the fundamental principles that guide its humanitarian actions worldwide.

The RSLAF has been one target audience for such dissemination of information, which is aimed at teaching armed forces to accept and support the ICRC's humanitarian action, and to help them to integrate International humanitarian law (IHL) into the doctrines of the army. 

Sgt Kamara, 42, said that ICRC briefings to his battalion had been crucial in making him and his soldiers understand many issues around International humanitarian law (IHL) and the ICRC. Also, according to him, rules for behaviour in war have existed within Sierra Leone customs long before the advent of the Geneva Conventions. For instance, under traditional rules contact with a woman would desecrate the powers of a warrior, and rape is prohibited. It is forbidden to attack sacred places like shrines, churches and mosques. The list goes on.

Kamara could recognise the essential rules of present day humanitarian law in these traditions, but expressed his frustration that the ICRC was unable to do much before and during the conflict “in the face of flagrant violation of IHL in Sierra Leone”.

Throughout and since the end of the conflict, the ICRC has been reaching out to commanders and to other ranks of the various armed groups in the country. Such information sessions have not been attended by everyone, and it should be noted that the primary responsibility for dissemination of IHL to soldiers and others rests with the government. The ICRC’s efforts have been geared towards reminding these people about their obligations to respect and ensure respect for IHL, but also to support the government to spread this knowledge and put IHL into the law – and into practice.