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The justice experiment


A young woman in Sierra Leone who was abducted from her family at age 10 by rebels from the Revolutionary United Front. When she tried to escape, the rebels poured acid over her arm and breast as a warning to other abductees.
Credit: Brent Stirton

In post-war public hearings, Sierra Leoneans shared with their compatriots stories of how rebel fighters cut children into pieces in front of their parents, and forced people to drink the blood of slaughtered family members.

Four years on, the Sierra Leonean people are still learning how to move on from such horrors and their causes. Punishing perpetrators is part of that recovery but, as Sierra Leoneans are quick to point out, only a part.

With ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor behind bars and awaiting trial for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone’s brutal 1991-2002 civil war, one of Africa’s biggest ‘big men’ has been halted. Taylor’s impending trial before a UN-backed Special Court is set to be the first time a former African president faces an international tribunal for crimes allegedly committed while in office. If convicted at his trial in The Hague, Taylor will serve out his sentence in a British jail.

Alhaji Ahmed Jusu Jarka, who had both hands hacked off by rebels whose guns were allegedly supplied by Taylor, says many Sierra Leoneans are happy Taylor will finally be judged. “This is what we have been looking for. Everybody is anxious for the Special Court to try him.”

But the book should not stop there, says Jusu Jarka. He and many other Sierra Leoneans stress that while Taylor’s trial is important, other means of seeking justice, such as Sierra Leone’s truth commission, should not be sidelined.

Unique to Sierra Leone’s post-war recovery is the simultaneous operation of the Special Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), both established under the 1999 Lome peace accord. While the Special Court deals with “those most responsible” for war crimes in Sierra Leone, the TRC provided a forum of the multitude of crimes committed at the grassroots and as well as war-related murder, torture and rape.

National civil society and rights groups say implementing the recommendations of the TRC, which wrapped up its work in 2004, is vital to tackling conditions that contributed to the outbreak of war and which persist today: corruption and lack of accountability in government, weak human rights protections, and crippling poverty and unemployment.

The ‘hybrid’ Special Court, created by an agreement between the UN and the Sierra Leonean government, comprises judges and staff from in and outside the country, and covers violations of both local and international law. Taylor is one of just 13 people indicted to date.

By contrast, the broader truth commission was created to probe the causes and nature of the violence, establish an impartial record of human rights abuses, and promote reconciliation and healing to prevent a repetition of such acts.

In 2004, the commission published sweeping recommendations for reparations for war victims, action against corruption and human rights protections.

“The TRC recommendations are more relevant to the Sierra Leonean people today than the Special Court,” said Oluniyi Robbin-Coker, a Sierra Leonean civil society and rights activist who has led a push for the Sierra Leone government to implement the TRC recommendations.

TRC Chairman, Bishop Joseph Christian Humper added that their report must not remain mere words on paper. “For us to leave it on the shelf would mean business as usual.”

Successful experiment?

Debate continues over whether running the court and the Truth Commission at the same time is the best approach. Some observers say citizens did not fully understand the roles and interaction of the two bodies. Despite the court’s limited mandate to try only a handful of the worst offenders, many combatants guilty of offences were afraid to speak to the TRC for fear of indictment.

For many, like human rights activist and former head of the national forum for human rights, Joseph Rahall, running the two at the same time is not the way to go.

“It undermined the ability of the TRC to actually get the information it could have gotten, if the Special Court had not been operating, because many of the combatants shied away from giving testimony at the TRC,” Rahall said. “Reconciliation was not achieved for a lot of these combatants because they did not come out and confess and ask for forgiveness. They are still finding it difficult to go back to their communities.”

A civil society coalition in Sierra Leone – the Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation (WG) – says efforts to clarify the relationship between the TRC and the court did not succeed. “Every Sierra Leonean we interviewed referred to the way in which ordinary people were confused by the relationship between the two institutions until very late in the TRC process, fearing indictment by the Special Court should they cooperate with the TRC,” the WG said in a report entitled “Searching for Truth and Reconciliation in Sierra Leone”.



A group of sex workers in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Displaced from their villages by civil conflict, these girls fled to the capital. As the last means to support themselves they have been forced to work as prostitutes.
Credit: Brent Stirton

Sierra Leonean student, Josephus Williams, agreed: “If it was the TRC before the Special Court then maybe a number of rebels would have come forward to tell us what happened in the bush.”

In an interview with the civil society group that questioned Sierra Leoneans in 2005 about the process, one woman said: “I was told by the elders that I would go to prison if I gave a statement to the TRC. There is no support in the village for the Special Court. I now regret not talking to the TRC. I would still like to tell my story.”

Sierra Leone’s simultaneous approach was seen as a potential model for other post-conflict settings, but the civil society group cautions that it should not automatically be seen as the best route. “We are worried that an ‘official view’ may take shape at the international level that the ‘experiment’ was a success and that concurrence will uncritically be endorsed as ‘best practice,’” the WG report said.

The civil society working group says it hopes its report will be just the first step “to what should be a much wider and deeper debate in Sierra Leone and internationally”.

Some in neighbouring Liberia, which launched its own Truth Commission in June, are calling for a tribunal to run at the same time. Sierra Leone TRC chairman, Humper, says Liberians must study lessons learned from Sierra Leone and other countries, and choose the best approach for Liberia based on its own circumstances. “They have to decide on the right route to sustainable peace and development and lifting up the masses.”

Whatever the observers’ view of running the two bodies concurrently, most see both mechanisms as critical to healing and progress.

“The TRC and the Special Court are on a journey,” Humper said. “They are moving in one direction: a place called ‘justice and peace’. But they are taking two different routes.” He said the two can be effective simultaneously if the people are properly educated about their roles. He added that the two bodies must be given equal attention: "Then and only then will we arrive at our destination.”

Rights activist Rahall agreed: “Both mechanisms are vital. Impunity had taken over the country, so for it to be gotten rid of was vital.”

Arrest, trial of ‘local hero’ sows dismay

The Special Court engendered scepticism among some Sierra Leoneans, with the 2003 arrest and subsequent trial of Samuel Hinga Norman, who led a civil force against rebels bent on toppling President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. The court is trying leaders from all three of the main warring factions: the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and the pro-government Civil Defence Forces (CDF).

Hinga Norman led the CDF militia, made up mostly of traditional hunters who battled alongside Kabbah’s soldiers. While the militia is charged with torturing and killing civilians during the war, Hinga Norman’s arrest sparked debate over the legitimacy of the court and its mandate. Many see Hinga Norman as a local hero who fought off the dreaded RUF rebels, and think he should be congratulated, not condemned, whatever the CDF’s methods.

“This is why I do not like the Special Court,” said Mabel Sesay, a trader in Sierra Leone. “You mean the man who sacrificed his life to save us is the one they have arrested?”

In 2004, the then deputy prosecutor Desmond de Silva, spoke of the Hinga Norman trial controversy, and told the BBC: “I’m afraid you can fight on the same side of the angels and nevertheless commit crimes against humanity.”

Student Williams – who claimed that he suffered at the hands of the Kamajors, the largest group within the CDF – said no matter one’s cause, the killing and maiming of innocents must be punished. “I cannot argue the issue of who bears the greatest responsibility, but nobody has the right, no matter on what side you are fighting, to take the life of innocent people – if you do that then you must pay.”

Miles to go to justice, peace

Meanwhile, countless wrongs must be righted in Sierra Leone. Unemployed youths continue to roam the streets, and amputees - shocked and angry that the very ex-combatants who hacked off their limbs have seen more benefits than they have – are still fighting for a satisfactory compensation package. According to Humper, frustrated former fighters, without a path to reintegrate into society, are "a threat to security".

Transparency and accountability in government remain fairly weak, said Marieke Wierda, the Sierra Leone expert with the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice. And national rights activists say the government has yet to put in place a viable TRC follow-up process and human rights commission. The civil society working group says in its report: “If there is not a credible and effective follow-up phase, many Sierra Leoneans will legitimately ask whether the TRC was ever more than an expensive ‘talking shop’.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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