Trading with the atrocity merchants

THE GOVERNMENT must rue the day it ever chose to involve itself in the post-colonial conflicts in Sierra Leone. The poorest country in the world is revealing an uncanny ability to embarrass the old imperial power.

First, an apparently well- intentioned attempt to bring military assistance to the elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah blew up in Robin Cook's face when the Foreign Secretary had to deal with accusations that Britain had broken UN sanctions against the country. Now, having put its weight squarely behind a peace deal between a section of the rebels and the beleaguered Kabbah government, Britain finds the troops it has sent under the UN flag to help to smooth the path to peace are kidnapped by a disaffected rebel group which was not party to the peace deal.

The kidnappers - the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council - ruled the country from May 1997, when they overthrew President Kabbah in a coup, until February 1998, when a Nigerian-led West African force, Ecomog, drove them out of Freetown and brought back Mr Kabbah. Yesterday, the men holding the British soldiers were reportedly wearing tattered Sierra Leone Army uniforms. The AFRC rule, under the leadership of Johnny Paul Koroma, was characterised by widespread arbitrary arrests and the banning of political parties. It did, however, make common cause with the other main rebel grouping, the Revolutionary United Front, that entered the country from Liberia in 1991 and, backed by the Liberian leader Charles Taylor, has ensured the country has not known peace since then.

It is the RUF, under the leadership of Foday Sankoh, that prosecuted the campaign of terror against supporters of Sierra Leone's elected government. Thousands of civilians, many of them children, had their limbs hacked off by machete, or were gang raped, or both. The youngest documented case of dismemberment was against a child of two. Through this campaign of terror, in a deal backed by Britain, the RUF has won itself four seats in the government, with the key position of minister responsible for the country's gold and diamond mines earmarked for Mr Sankoh.

Quite what the Government thought it was doing in backing the Togo peace deal, signed on 7 July between Mr Kabbah - surely under considerable duress - and Mr Sankoh, is not clear. True, the rebels controlled much of the interior, including important mining areas. But the Foreign Office position, that this was the best chance of peace for the people of Sierra Leone, seems naive at best and irresponsible at worst. The insistence by Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, that the deal had popular backing must be treated with extreme caution. Neither is it clear how many, if any, of those who lost arms or legs, and now face being ruled by those responsible, were consulted.

After regarding Slobodan Milosevic through the 1990s as a regional powerbroker the international community had to deal with, the Government finally adopted the principle this year that it was both pointless and wrong to deal with those guilty of human rights atrocities. Such leaders simply had to be removed. This sound principle now applies in Europe, it seems, but for Africa, other rules, and immeasurably lower standards, are still acceptable.