‘The sanctions debate’
The audio tracks linked below are of the discussion between Margie Buchanan-Smith and Peter Penfold. As you listen to this discussion, and again later when you know more about the Sierra Leone war, ask yourself what you might have done in late 1997 if you were involved as an outside intervener in Sierra Leone.
Listen to the audio tracks linked below and look at the transcripts with the specific purpose of compiling a list of the points on which Peter Penfold and Margie Buchanan-Smith agree, and the points on which they disagree.
Click to listen to the audio (9 minutes).
Transcript: Audio 5
Click to listen to the audio (9 minutes).
Transcript: Audio 6
Click to listen to the audio (8 minutes).
Transcript: Audio 7
Click to listen to the audio (7 minutes).
Transcript: Audio 8
Here are our lists. See how they compare with yours.
Peter Penfold and Margie Buchanan-Smith agree that:
sanctions can be legitimate;
they would not impose sanctions if people were starving to death;
the junta was universally condemned, inside and outside Sierra Leone; and
aid agencies do have a responsibility to take into account the political context.
Peter Penfold and Margie Buchanan-Smith disagree on:
whether NGOs were able to control food aid and prevent its misuse;
whether or not the people of Sierra Leone supported sanctions on rice;
whether people were starving;
whether there was a humanitarian crisis;
what was the basic human rights principle in this case; and
whether giving food aid would have prolonged the junta's life.
One thing that is striking is just how fundamental are some of the disagreements. Consider the question of whether or not people were dying of hunger. Peter Penfold makes clear his view that sanctions could only continue if they were not killing people; as he says, we were not ‘going to starve people to death for the sake of some political gain’. He goes on to say flatly, ‘There was not a humanitarian crisis.’ For Margie Buchanan-Smith, people were starving to death by inference, not because they were collapsing on the street. Malnutrition was rising, and ‘there was inevitably an increase in mortality which accompanies an increase in malnutrition’.
Another issue that is raised here is how much we can transfer experience from other countries. There is agreement that aid was looted in neighbouring Liberia – for Penfold this carries over to Sierra Leone and means that the same NGOs would have the same problem, while Buchanan-Smith says they learnt their lesson and would do it differently, setting up feeding centres. Penfold sees no one starving to death; Buchanan-Smith uses data from Sudan to argue that rising malnutrition means people are dying hidden in villages.
You may have noticed hints of accusations of self-interest – that Margie Buchanan-Smith was an official of an NGO which had had substantial government grants which had been cut off, and which she hoped would be restored through feeding programmes, while Peter Penfold as High Commissioner had a vested interest in carrying out government policy and in supporting the Kabbah government in exile.
But the most profound disagreement is over human rights and what kind of rights come first. For Buchanan-Smith, it ‘contravenes basic humanitarian principles’ to withhold humanitarian aid; humanitarian aid is supposed to be given unconditionally. For Penfold, ‘It's more important that people have a right to live in a peaceful and humane way without an evil regime bludgeoning them.’ Penfold says more lives were lost due to the junta; Buchanan-Smith says that calculation is not permitted to be done. Penfold says, ‘The important thing about the Geneva Convention is the protection of human rights and to prevent human atrocities. We had a situation in Sierra Leone where people were being brutally murdered.’
Finally, both were looking to the broader implications of their actions, and were not only thinking about Sierra Leone. Penfold was ‘trying to send a message to the whole of Africa that this would be the last military coup in Africa’. For Buchanan-Smith, humanitarian aid was such a human right that a precedent of denying could not be set in Sierra Leone.
Our discussion above raises three questions which you should try to answer:
Having compiled your list of points of disagreement, do you think you might be able to establish some more information to clarify these points? If so, what information, and how would you find it?
Both Peter Penfold and Margie Buchanan-Smith were outside Sierra Leone, and were dependent on telephone calls, letters and visits from people who were inside. How serious do you think is the danger that information would be biased – the people talking to Penfold would be linked, at least indirectly, to the High Commission and would tell Penfold what he wanted to hear, that sanctions were good, while people talking to Buchanan-Smith were indirectly linked to aid agencies and thus would support an increase in aid? Think back to your own experience – do you know of examples where people were afraid to say the ‘wrong’ thing to someone they hoped to look to later for a job or grant, so just told them what they wanted to hear?
Assume for the purposes of discussion that Penfold is right that people in Sierra Leone overwhelmingly wanted rice sanctions, and that Buchanan-Smith is right that at least a few extra people were dying. Do the Sierra Leoneans have the right to ask the international community to violate one human right – to humanitarian aid – if they feel that this will end a larger human rights abuse?