Global Policy Forum

War Is Over Now: A New Battle Begins


By Gavin Simpson

Sunday Herald
June 5, 2004
Freetown's Special Court is the first war crimes tribunal to sit in the country where atrocities took place. But will it stop the guilty getting away with murder?

Conventional wisdom, it seems, prefers to exaggerate the progress being made in post-conflict Sierra Leone. However, it also serves to disguise some harsh realities, and you quickly learn that nothing you're told about Sierra Leone turns out quite how you imagined it would be.

You'll be told, for example, that modern infrastructure is emerging; but you won't spot a streetlight or litter bin as you stumble through overflowing roadside gutters. You'll be told that the wartime factions have been dismantled, only to discover the same organised groups of youths mobilising on the fringes of public demonstrations and local elections.

Most pertinently, you'll be told that justice is being brought to the people of this besieged West African nation by an innovative form of criminal tribunal that is more economical, more streamlined and hence more remarkable than anything that has gone before. Then, as evidence, you'll be pointed to the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The opening of trials last week was a historic event in the emergent area known as "transitional justice". Yet questions remain over where this transition is taking Sierra Leone and exactly whose notions of justice the court is trying to promote. Retribution and punishment are far from the top of most people's priority lists. Endemic poverty, desperation and indignity mean most would prefer proper education, reliable healthcare, food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads.

"They should be spending the money to make life better for some of us, especially the families that suffered during the war," said Mohamed Lamin, whose home overlooks the court in the capital, Freetown. "My house was burned when the rebels attacked, but I can't get any help to buy new zinc for my roof."

The $85 million budget of the court may be just a fraction of that spent on tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, but it is seen as a waste by such people as Lamin as they struggle to make ends meet in one of the world's poorest countries.

The long-awaited advent of trials on Thursday felt less like a milestone for Sierra Leone and more like the lifting of a millstone from around the necks of the court's architects. The purpose-built, modern courthouse has at last hosted its inaugural hearings. Furthermore, after nearly four years in the planning, and over 150 preliminary motions and applications, the serious business of the court is finally under way.

"We hope the Special Court, which is a different type of model to that of the other international tribunals and the first of its kind, will prove to be an exemplary model – and one that will be efficient and expeditious," said Hans Correll, the UN under- secretary-general for legal affairs, speaking in March. The UN has staked a great deal of credibility on ensuring war crimes in Sierra Leone do not go unpunished.

Nevertheless, expediency dictates that the court is curtailed in terms of its time frame, jurisdiction and enforcement powers. Sceptics claim that such a slick and quick process dilutes the justice delivered. Abdulai Kamara, a local human rights activist, said: "To some of us it looks like no more than a token gesture. The court had a chance to change things, but it's just rushing through [the process] with a few guys. We're disappointed with the impact."

The man who determines how many people face trial before the court is its prosecutor, David Crane. His mandate is to prosecute "those who bear the greatest responsibility" for war crimes and crimes against humanity. A former Pentagon lawyer with a background in US intelligence, Crane bears the icy, calculated, self-assured look of a man on a mission.

"I'm not here to convict people; I'm here to show the people the law is fair. ‘Greatest responsibility' is a double mandate; it can be done in three years. It's those dozen or so individuals who caused, created, aided and abetted this tragedy over the past decade," said Crane. So far only 13 people have been indicted to face trial, nine of whom are currently in the custody of the court.

To recount the recent history of Sierra Leone is to face up to one of the greatest human tragedies of our time. In March 1991, insurgents calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded the south and east of the country and gradually expanded into every single district.

For the next 11 years Sierra Leone's civilians were subjected to horrendous violence and suffering at the hands of not only the RUF, but various other, mostly indigenous, military and militia factions. Atrocities abounded. One 19-year-old girl recalled: "Men in uniforms came to our house at night. I hid under my bed and watched them cut off my papa's head. They stripped my mother naked and used her; then they killed her. They took my two brothers with them and left me alone. Then they burned down our whole village."

In spite of, or perhaps because of, its lack of any obvious ethnic, religious or political motives, the war in Sierra Leone stands out as the most alarming of those "forgotten conflicts" of the 1990s.

The peace accord signed by the government and the RUF in 1999 was ill-fated. RUF combatants abducted hundreds of UN peacekeeping troops in May 2000. This disgrace invoked a decisive response from pro- government forces that eventually led to the RUF's demise. Having accepted a blanket amnesty for perpetrators, the incumbent president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, wrote to the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in June 2000, requesting "a strong and credible court" that would "administer a blend of international and domestic Sierra Leonean law".

The court, a hybrid tribunal, was the product of an agreement between the UN and the government in January 2002. It is the first war crimes court to be held in the country where the crimes took place, aiming to enhance ownership and transparency, as well as endowing permanent legal and judicial capacity upon Sierra Leone.

"The people of Sierra Leone were very suspicious at first," said Crane. "And some frankly probably still are suspicious, because they have no respect for the law or the institutions upon which this country is founded. Usually these institutions, or the law, have done really nothing for them. There's a huge distrust, and rightly so." "I was asked frequently ‘who do you work for? 'But I take my independence very seriously. I work for nobody other than the people of Sierra Leone."

Crane and the other senior officers of the court began work in earnest in the summer of 2002. Two years later, the court precinct resembles a kind of Alcatraz in the heart of Freetown's urban sprawl. Dotted along its barbed-wired walls are watchtowers, from which Nigerian soldiers stare down passers-by. Mounted machine guns jut out menacingly. It is by far the most heavily protected site in Sierra Leone.

Inside the compound, a blue and white container is the detention facility for the indictees. The most intense controversies about the court concern the prosecutor's assertion that the nine men held inside are in fact "those who bear the greatest responsibility".

It transpires that this court is not prosecuting the real lynchpins of what Crane alleges was a "joint criminal enterprise" between rebels, dissident soldiers and foreign financiers to secure control of Sierra Leone's diamonds.

The founder and undisputed leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, died in custody last July. The most-feared RUF field commander, Sam ‘Mosquito' Bockarie, was killed in a shoot-out in Liberia last April. Sierra Leoneans have understandably vented their frustrations, but, as Crane notes, "these are things that are out of our control".

If the absences of Sankoh and Bockarie from the dock were unavoidable for Crane, there is a strong feeling in certain quarters that a lack of institutional clout accounts for the court's failure to bring in one of its fugitive indictees. Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president accused of supporting the RUF, has been indicted since March 2003 but is no closer to facing trial. Taylor's exile in Nigeria has proven embarrassingly insurmountable for the court.

"I think it's a matter of patience and time, but I still believe Charles Taylor will be turned over to us," said Crane. "You can't have an African exception to the Nuremberg principles. Can you imagine it? The rest of the world says that those who are indicted for war crimes will be brought to justice. But in Africa, it's different. If you're an African leader, you can get away with murder. That is a huge insult to the people of the continent and it really sets back international criminal justice by decades."

So the spotlight of the court now falls not on members of the insurgent factions, but on the civil militiamen who took up arms to defend their communities. The first trial is that of three leaders of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), which fought on the side of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) government to keep President Kabbah in power.

The case set to dominate is that of former deputy defence minister, Sam Hinga Norman. Hinga Norman is exalted in many parts for his resistance to the the RUF and its accomplices. "He is our only hero, who stood gallantly to defend our God-given rights, challenging the enemy bullet for bullet and blood for blood," wrote local journalist Rita Fofanah.

Few Sierra Leoneans deny atrocities were committed by the CDF; indeed, some former members privately echo the words of the indictment that CDF victims "were often shot, hacked to death, or burnt to death" and that "its practices included human sacrifices and cannibalism". Yet they make the point that if individuals have to answer for those atrocities, then the buck should not stop with Hinga Norman.

One CDF commander said: "Hinga Norman was just the deputy minister of defence. And when war comes, who is responsible to defend this nation, is it not the defence minister? And the defence minister was the president. Hinga Norman did not have all the power, it was the president. This is all what people are looking up to. And it is the area where the Special Court has to fail."

A growing number of Sierra Leoneans believe the president must be indicted, yet Crane refuses to be cowed by public opinion.

"I'm going to answer to cries of justice based on the law, and not the cries of the people of Sierra Leone in aid of themselves," Crane said. "What I have shown is that I'm not shy about indicting anyone who bears the greatest responsibility, and that already includes a head of state. When one sticks to the law and fact, impunity will melt away."

Hinga Norman intends to represent himself to turn the case against the president, his former comrade-in-arms.

The harsh reality for the court is that its legal project stands in danger of being politicised, which can only be detrimental to its legitimacy and its legacy in the eyes of Sierra Leoneans. And all the exaggerations of conventional wisdom won't save face for the court if it further alienates the very people it is supposed to serve.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone
More Information on Charles Taylor
More Information on Foday Sankoh


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