Global Policy Forum

War Crimes QC under Pressure


Rory Carroll

March 10, 2004

One of Britain's leading human rights lawyers, Geoffrey Robertson QC, came under intense pressure last night to quit his post as president of the UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone because of alleged bias against some defendants. Three fellow judges told Mr Robertson to decide by Friday whether to step down or fight an attempt to disqualify him because of a book he wrote which depicted Sierra Leone's rebel movement as a bloodthirsty criminal enterprise. The ruling threw the court into disarray on the eve of today's official opening at a ceremony in the capital, Freetown, and dented hopes of speedy justice for the alleged masterminds of the west African nation's civil war. Defence lawyers said the court's credibility hinged on Mr Robertson's resignation since his book displayed overt hostility to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Prosecutors in effect backed the defence application to disqualify him by saying there was "an appearance of bias". Mr Robertson, the chief justice in the appeals chamber as well as court president, appeared isolated last night when in a brief hearing three colleagues on the appeals bench in effect gave him a deadline to jump by ordering him to respond to the application in writing by 9am on Friday. As the presiding judge Mr Robertson is duty bound to rule on the application, but if he tries to keep his job by rejecting it the other appeal judges - an Austrian, a Nigerian and a Sierra Leonean - will hear the application.

Today's ceremony was billed as the launch of an important step in the evolution of international justice but court lawyers said it had turned into a fiasco which could become a full-blown crisis if Mr Robertson tried to stay. Established in 2002 to try those most responsible for a decade-long conflict which claimed close to 200,000 lives, the court is a hybrid between a UN tribunal and a Sierra Leonean court which is supposed to avoid the delays which have plagued the international tribunals dealing with the Balkans and Rwanda. It has indicted 11 people, including RUF leaders. Before being appointed to the court, Mr Robertson, a leading barrister who has investigated human rights abuses around the world, denounced the RUF in his book Crimes Against Humanity - The Struggle for Global Justice. In a chapter entitled Lessons from Sierra Leone, he referred to the rebels' "grotesque crimes against humanity" and its late leader, Foday Sankoh, as "the nation's butcher. The RUF recruited gangs of dispossessed youths and armed them with AK-47s for their missions of pillage, rape and diamond-heisting. The RUF had no political agenda." The book accused the rebels of "devilish tortures" and perfecting their "contribution to the special chamber of horrors" by chopping off limbs, sewing up vaginas with fishing lines and padlocking mouths. The scale of the atrocities amounted to a crime against humanity which must never be forgiven sufficiently for the RUF to be given a slice of power, it said. "On the contrary, its leaders deserve to be captured and put on trial." Many human rights groups would applaud those views but defence lawyers said Mr Robertson should not have been appointed to the court, whose judges were supposed to be impartial, just months after the book's second edition was published. Counsel for Issa Hessan Sesay, the RUF leader, argued that Mr Robertson had prejudged their client's guilt. Neither Mr Sesay nor any of the other RUF defendants were named in the book but lawyers said a fair trial was impossible since the presiding judge had evidently rejected their denials of committing crimes against humanity. The defence motion to disqualify was not opposed by the prosecution, which said the book "could lead a reasonable observer, properly informed, to apprehend bias". Mr Robertson, 56, was not available for comment last night. A court spokesman said the former Rhodes scholar was not free to speak publicly since the matter was sub-judice.

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