"Jury still out", says Human Rights Watch

Ahead of Sierra Leone's presidential inauguration and opening of parliament on Friday, Human Rights Watch has urged President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government to take urgent steps to avoid plunging the country into misery and destruction again, and to bring to justice perpetrators of past crimes.

"Sierra Leone has entered a new, more optimistic phase after years of conflict, destruction and abuse. Yet the peace remains fragile. Deep-rooted issues that gave rise to the war, a culture of impunity, endemic corruption, weak rule of law, crushing poverty, and inequitable distribution of vast natural resources- remain largely unaddressed," HRW said on Wednesday.

Urging the international community to continue to support Sierra Leone, HRW in a report titled: "The Jury is Still Out. A HRW Briefing paper on Sierra Leone", said accountability for horrific atrocities committed during the 10-year war is "of paramount importance if the country's future is to be based on respect for the rule of law".

The report makes wide-ranging recommendations on the proposed Special Court, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the judiciary, the army and police, the future of United Nations operations in Sierra Leone and the security threats from Liberia.

"The Mano River region is awash with arms. The international community needs to investigate and expose information about arms shipments, and pressure governments that allow their territories to be used by proxy armies aimed at destabilizing one another. The UN should mandate the placement of international military observers and rights monitors along the Guinea/Liberia and Sierra Leone/Liberia borders," the report said.

Meanwhile at least seven heads of state, including Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, have been invited for Friday's festivities in the capital, Freetown, news agencies reported on Wednesday.

Diplomats said the government's main challenges include security threats from Liberia, reintegration of ex-combatants and economic development of the war-ravaged country. Information Minister Septimus Kaikai was quoted by Sierra Leone Web, an online news provider, as saying the president's legislative priorities included issues of food security, anti-corruption, investment and privatisation.

On Tuesday Kabbah swore in 31 members of his new cabinet following their approval by parliament, with a warning that "it is not going to be business as usual during this second term," news agencies reported.

The full HRW report is available at: http://hrw.org/backgrounder/africa/sl-bck0711.htm