New Internationalist

Sierra Leone beyond Charles Taylor

As the world hails the ex-Liberian President’s 50-year sentence for civil war atrocities, Sabrina Mahtani hopes the judgment will not detract from the root causes of the conflict.

The Taylor judgment is, undoubtedly, an important step forward for international criminal justice. However, the excessive media coverage must not allow us to forget that Charles Taylor was not the cause of the devastating 11-year conflict in Sierra Leone.

Critics argue that the Special Court for Sierra Leone  – jointly set up by the United Nations and the Sierra Leone government – overshadowed the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was established in 2000 specifically to examine Sierra Leone’s past – to determine the root causes of the conflict and the role of the different factions. It was also tasked with making recommendations as to how war-torn Sierra Leone could be rebuilt and how such human rights violations could be prevented.

The TRC’s mandate was far wider than that of the Special Court. Its records contain thousands of Sierra Leonean voices unrestricted by the rules of evidence imposed by courts of law. Many argue that its historical narrative is a more accurate reflection of the events leading up to and during Sierra Leone’s conflict.

The TRC’s final report in 2004 outlined many of the causes of the civil war, such as unemployment, corruption, failures in governance and lack of access to key services. Among its primary findings was that ‘the central cause of the war was endemic greed, corruption and nepotism that deprived the nation of its dignity and reduced most people to a state of poverty... Government accountability was non-existent. Institutions meant to uphold human rights, such as the courts and civil society, were thoroughly co-opted by the executive.’

It also held that ‘many of the causes of the conflict that prompted thousands of young people to join the war have still not been adequately addressed. High among these factors are elitist politics, rampant corruption, nepotism, and bad governance in general.’

Having worked in human rights projects in Sierra Leone for the past six years, I have personally witnessed many of these factors, including corruption, difficulties accessing justice, lack of educational opportunities and economic empowerment for young people, particularly women.

The TRC particularly noted the devastating impact of the war on girls and women and the structural inequality they still face. 

Positive steps have been made, such as the passing of three Gender Acts which enhance legal protection for women and, just a few weeks ago, a new Legal Aid Act.There are new institutions, such as the Anti-Corruption Commission, Human Rights Commission and Youth Commission. And free healthcare for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under five was introduced in 2010.

However, Sierra Leone still faces many challenges. Two-thirds of the population subsist on less than $1.25 a day. Years of corruption and lack of key services have resulted in huge youth employment with about 14 per cent of the population without a job or working for no remuneration. Unemployed young men are often co-opted by political parties and were responsible for most of the election violence during the 2007 polls. It is feared that the upcoming elections in November 2012 will be similarly violent.

Foreign corporations have started to take advantage of the country’s rich mineral resources and there are concerns about how best to ensure that the extractive industries do not damage the environment and that they bring some benefit to the wider population. Just last month police shot dead a woman during a strike against poor working conditions by staff at African Minerals, one of the leading international mining companies.

Ten years after the end of the war, donors are now focusing on other countries more in the media spotlight, with Sierra Leone’s transition seen as well under way and with millions of dollars already spent on the Special Court.

A local journalist told me recently that he fears the conviction of Charles Taylor will mask the need for all Sierra Leoneans to continue to examine the causes of the conflict and to ensure that they are addressed. Sierra Leone’s future depends upon all the recommendations of the TRC being implemented and upon international support being maintained – and the Taylor judgment should not overshadow that.

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