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Interview with Bishop Joseph Humper, chairman of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Bishop Humper is chairman of Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), inaugurated by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in July. The TRC is intended to serve as a forum where perpetrators and victims of abuses during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war can "tell their stories in an effort to heal the wounds of war".

It plans to produce an impartial record of violations of human rights and humanitarian law, address impunity, help the victims of abuse, promote healing and reconciliation, and prevent any repetition of such abuses in Sierra Leone.

In this interview, Bishop Humper says that, once adequate funding is in place, the TRC can complete its mission within the mandated 12 months. He also notes how recent threats of a boycott by amputees have been resolved, and that the commission will make recommendations on setting up a fund to compensate victims of the war.

QUESTION: Can you give an update on the recent activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission over the last few months?

ANSWER: We have been in the preparatory stage since we were inaugurated in July: gathering necessary information, meeting with different groups like NGOs who were involved in TRC sensitisation activities before we came on board.

We have also met various personalities, diplomatic corps and other stakeholders. The other day, we met parliamentarians and political parties, and had fruitful discussions with them. We are now in the process of securing a permanent premise in Freetown for our work.

Q: You said you have been in the preparatory phase, which is now ending. What is the next stage, and when do you expect to get there?

A: The preparatory phase, according to our time frame, is supposed to end on 5 October. The commissioners intend to go on a sensitisation programme between 22 September and October. After that, we shall be getting ready for the operational stage. That should commence after arrangements are in place.

Q: When do you hope to start public hearings? There were reports that you might start in November.

A: That is not true. The operational stage will include statement-taking at local, district and regional levels, as well as research. It will also include hearings 'in camera' [behind closed doors]. But it is not likely that we can start in November.

Q: There have been reports of some people threatening to boycott the hearings, such as the amputees. How are you doing to try to get everybody on board and ensure nobody boycotts the process?

A: It is true that there have been complaints from some stakeholders. When we met the amputees, they read a petition that we thought was very relevant. When the government heard about their protest, the President [Ahmad Tejan Kabbah], Vice-President [Solomon Berewa] and other government officials invited the leaders of the amputees to the State Lodge to address the question of their living conditions, what to give them as a subsidy and their resettlement, as well as medical and transportation facilities.

The government discussed [these issues] with them; they have now withdrawn their threats, and committed themselves to cooperating with the TRC.

Q Are you confident that all the stakeholders will cooperate, and that you will not have similar threats in the future?

A: I won't say that for now but what we are doing at this moment is to try, as much as possible, to ensure that for all key stakeholders [are involved] - and I want you to know that's even our brothers who we used to call RUF rebels [Revolutionary United Front] ... the leadership is committed to sensitising people to cooperate with the TRC. They have made it clear to us that they see the TRC as the best means for reconciliation to take place.

We have also met with the army Chief of Defence Staff and the Acting Inspector-General of Police and discussed [the process] with them. They are all in agreement that the truth should be established - and that that can only be done by getting the perpetrators, the victims and the survivors to come and tell the truth.

After that, we will go into psychological healing and, ultimately, reconciliation.

Q: You didn't get the response you expected from donors when you first presented your budget. What is the position regarding funding?

A: In the beginning, the response was very slow, but we are begging to be encouraged by the fact that the response is improving. Just the other day we got the information that funds for the preparatory stage had been released.

Also, we have prepared the operational budget and we have sent that to Geneva [to office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights]. They have received it and have been promoting it before donors since August.

More importantly, President Kabbah and other [government] officials have committed to promoting the TRC. At this point, I would say there is optimism.

Q: You say the president and others are committed to ensuring the TRC succeeds. What has the government contributed so far, and how much more do you expect?

A: Having had some meetings with the president and other authorities, the government has been able to provide a structure [building] to be rehabilitated for the permanent use of the commission. The government had also provided some US $97,000 for the operational phase. This is encouraging cooperation on the part of government.

Q: Given the delays in starting, do you think the TRC can manage to complete this job within 12 months - as per your mandate?

A: Our goal is to work within the provisions of the Act, which talks about 12 months. We hope we will be able to get the necessary support. Completion will depend on funding but, once we have the necessary funding, we are committed to doing the job within the specified period given to us.

I am sure that the Commission is working assiduously to complete the work within the mandates of the Act.

Q: The Commission will listen to people talk about the past, record what is said and make recommendations. What happens after that?

A: When we complete our work, according to the Act, we will make our report to the president [Ahmad Tejan Kabbah]. We will, of course, make recommendations. The president will present that to parliament and send a copy of the document to the United Nations. The report will also be made available to the public.

The Act also provides for a follow-up committee to be established, which includes the monitoring committee that was agreed under the Lome Agreement of 1999. The mechanisms to ensure that happens are already in place.

According to the Act, the recommendations have to be executed in a concrete manner to ensure the government did not waste time by setting up the TRC.

Q: The expectations of victims coming to the TRC will include some kind of compensation. Like the amputees, they will expect some compensation. Do you have a mechanism for providing some form of compensation?

A: Indeed, there is a mechanism. The Lome Peace Accord provides that a fund should be set up for the victims of the war; the commission is enjoined to ensure that that fund is established. The fund will be put in place.

We are quite sure that, at the end of the day, whatever compensation or reparations will be required will form part of our recommendations.

Q: Will your commission also make recommendations to the Special Court being set up by the government and the United Nations, to try those who committed serious crimes during the war?

A: That is not within our mandate. We will make recommendations to government, which will produce that document for national and international consumption. We cannot make recommendations to a court.

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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