Global Policy Forum

War Crimes Tribunal Bars its Judge


Hugh Davies

March 15, 2004

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, the human rights advocate now a judge at Sierra Leone's war crimes tribunal, has been barred from adjudicating in the trial of three rebel commanders accused of genocide. The ruling by his fellow judges came after lawyers for the three men seized on comments in a book by Mr Robertson in which he accused the Revolutionary United Front of being responsible for "grotesque crimes against humanity". Earlier Mr Robertson, president of the United Nations-backed Special Court in Freetown, had refused to step down, insisting that the constitution did not allow for his removal at this stage. The decision dealt a body blow to the fledgling tribunal. The three cases were considered the most important of nine at present before the court, which opened last week and is considered a loose model for an Iraqi tribunal intended to try Saddam Hussein. The RUF was the most prominent, and most vicious, rebel group in the country, which emerged two years ago from a savage civil war that left tens of thousands dead. The group was responsible for butchery on a grand scale, enlisting child soldiers to amputate the limbs of civilians with machetes. The Freetown court ruled that despite Mr Robertson's eminence as a barrister, the second edition of his book, Crimes Against Humanity: the Struggle for Global Justice, which was written before his appointment to the tribunal, introduced an element of bias that could prejudice the hearings.

In his book Mr Robertson denounced Foday Sankoh, the late RUF warlord whose fighters murdered and maimed their way across Sierra Leone in pursuit of diamonds and power, as "the nation's butcher". His fellow court officials allowed Mr Robertson, 57, to retain his leadership of the court and adjudicate in six other cases involving fighters from other factions. While his withdrawal was inevitable if the court was to be seen as scrupulously fair, it is an embarrassing setback. When trials begin in May officials, with a modest budget of £40 million, are hoping to create a model for the swift resolution of war crimes trials around the world. Robin Vincent, 60, the court's registrar, is understood to have already been consulted by the Americans and the British over his approach to trial procedure. It has yet to be explained how the tribunal failed to note the explosive nature of Mr Robertson's book. Questions also centre on the fact that he is on record as saying that in the case of war crimes, the more horrific the atrocity, the more "due process" was necessary to show the impartiality of a court. In Freetown, anger still burns over the war. In a tin-shack encampment at Aberdeen, on the outskirts of the capital, thousands of amputees live in poverty, desperate for some form of justice. So far, the only RUF men indicted for crimes against humanity are Issa Sesay, a senior "battle group" commander, Morris Kallon, one of his subordinates, and Augustine Gbao, head of the RUF "internal defence" unit. The "big fish" are either dead or on the run. The most wanted man in Sierra Leone at the moment is Johnny Paul Koroma, who led a brief but bloody military junta in 1997. His whereabouts remain unknown, and there are reports that he may have been murdered in neighbouring Liberia.

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