Sierra Leone & International Law

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In the realm of international relations, law can develop from a number of influences. The sources of international law may either be formal or informal and either written down or based on longstanding customs in individual states. In addition, individual states have a number perspectives on the nature of international law. The Republic of Sierra Leone has had a long history of involvement in international affairs. Sierra Leone is centrally located along the coast of Africa and boasts the third largest natural harbor in the world. In addition, the country is rich in natural resources such as diamonds and titanium. Because of these factors, Sierra Leone has a long history associated with colonialism, government instability, and the smuggling of weapons across its borders. These three factors have developed the perspectives of the people of Sierra Leone and are contributors to the country’s involvement in international law.

A major aspect that helped to shape Sierra Leone’s view on international law is its political history. Sierra Leone was originally set up by British abolitionists as a settlement for repatriated and rescued slaves in 1787 and became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1896. By the mid-20th Century, widespread unrest began to spread throughout the country in response to British rule and demands for independence grew. In 1961, Britain finally gave in and granted Sierra Leone independence. The political history of Sierra Leone over the ensuing decades was characterized by corruption in government; rebellion by extremist groups such as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF); and mismanagement of the country’s resources. The instabilities within Sierra Leone came to a head with the start of a 10-year long civil war commencing in 1991.

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UN Peacekeeping Force in Sierra Leone, 1999

As a result of the civil war, the UN sent peacekeeping forces to Sierra Leone in 1999 with the goal to enforce a peace treaty ending the war and to bring rebel leaders accused of war crimes to justice. UN forces remained in Sierra Leone until 2004 and helped to supervise the disarming of rebel groups and the establishment of a system of order in the country. In addition, the UN created a war crimes tribunal within the country in order to try senior leaders from both sides in the civil war. In the years since the UN mission ended, Sierra Leone is continuing to progress and has seen a marked increase in stability. Despite the progress, serious problems still exist, and the long-term legacy of colonialism and British rule continues to influence the country’s view on international law.

The geographical importance of Sierra Leone and its wealth in natural resources shapes its perception of the nature of international law as well. Sierra Leone is located along the Northwestern coast of Africa and is bordered by Guinea and Liberia. Sierra Leone boasts the third largest natural harbor in the world in the city of Freetown, which makes it a potentially attractive venue for international trade. Furthermore, Sierra Leone contains some of the world’s largest reserves of precious metals. Despite the fact that Sierra Leone is rich in precious metals, the country has struggled to maintain control of their export due to past instabilities. For example, much of the diamond and titanium mines in Sierra Leone were at one point under the control of rebel groups such as the RUF. As a result of the control of the precious metal reserves by rebel groups and the lack of a strong central government, a flourishing underground trade of precious metals for weapons emerged. Rebel groups traded diamonds from the mines under their control for weapons from countries such as Liberia, Angola, and the Congo.

An example of an international agreement that Sierra Leone is a party to is the Arms Trade Treaty. The Arms Trade Treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly on April 2, 2013, and came into effect on December 24, 2014. The main purpose of the Arms Trade Treaty is to regulate the international trade of conventional weapons for the purpose of promoting global peace and the eradication of the illegal trade of weapons. Opposition to the Arms Trade Treaty has mostly come from Iran, North Korea, and Syria, the only three UN member states that voted against the treaty. The Arms Trade Treaty has resulted in some controversy among policy makers in the U.S., who feel that the treaty will impede U.S. foreign policy by making it difficult to supply weapons to important allies such as Israel and Taiwan.

Sierra Leone Supported the UN Arms Trade Treaty and Ratified it in 2014.

Sierra Leone Supported the UN Arms Trade Treaty and Ratified it in 2014.

Sierra Leone supported the negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty and ratified it by accession on August 8, 2014. A key reason why Sierra Leone supported the treaty is due to its past experiences regarding the illicit trafficking of weapons. During the period of instability within Sierra Leone, groups such as the RUF traded precious metals and diamonds from the country’s rich mines for illicit weapons. As a result of the illicit arms trade and the smuggling of diamonds, the RUF was able to gain the weapons that it needed to and sustain in its fight against the government. In addition, the trading of illegal weapons further resulted in rampant instability and tumult that the Sierra Leone is still recovering from to this day.

A section of the Arms Trade Treaty that discusses the legal obligations between member nations is Article 6 Section 2. The section states that a state party shall not authorize any transfer of conventional arms as covered under Article 2 Section 1 if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms would be used in the perpetration of genocide, crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian, or other war crimes as defined by international contracts which it is a party to. The language in the section codifies existing international law through the concept of jus cogens, which are fundamental principles of international law that are accepted by the international community as a norm by which no derogation is permitted. Some examples of jus cogens include the prohibition of genocide, human rights violations, and war crimes. Through the adoption of such language, Article 6 Section 2 of the Arms Trade Treaty is upholding preexisting forms of customary international law.

The enforcement of the provisions of Article 6 Section 2 of Arms Trade Treaty is dependent on several factors. One such factor is the willingness of states to enforce the provisions of the treaty and the overall strength of the provisions. In addition, its enforcement may be strengthened because the provisions are based in part on customary international law that is considered to be the norm by the global community. The view of the treaty by Sierra Leone may determine its future conduct in international relations as well. By accepting the terms of the treaty, Sierra Leone has shown that it is moving beyond its past instabilities as a nation and is beginning to develop a positive reputation on the world stage.

To sum it up, international law can derive from a number of different sources and its interpretation by individual states varies. Some of the influences on a country’s interpretation include political and economic events, overall geography, and previous interactions with sovereign actors on the international stage. Sierra Leone is one such country that had its views on international law shaped by a number of events, both inside and outside the realm of conventional international law. Through the study of its reaction to sources of international law, one gains insight into how Sierra Leone could react in the future to events in international relations.

Works Cited:
Barcroft, Peter. “PGA Welcomes Ratification of Arms Trade Treaty by the Governments of Dominican Republic and Sierra Leone.” Parliamentarians for Global Action. Parliamentarians for Global Action, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.

Delgado, Andrea. “Explainer: What Is the Arms Trade Treaty?” The Conversation. The Conversation US, Inc., 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Goodenough, Patrick. “Unratified by the US, Controversial UN Arms Treaty Enters Into Force.” CNS News. Media Research Center, 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

Onishi, Norimitsu. “Africa Diamond Hub Defies Smuggling Rules.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Jan. 2001. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.

“Sierra Leone Profile.” BBC News. BBC, 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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  1. Kaydence on October 15, 2016

    Thanks for the insights. It brings light into the dark!

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