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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  1. #1 Dr Z I Qureshi 31 May 12

    One should not wait for the outcome of conviction of Charles Taylor. Time is now to focus and provide for the needs of the people in all sector of their lives. Political and democratic stability in the country.The elites of the country should take the reprehensibility to build the economy of the country.
    They must be honest enough to root out the corruption and unwanted wastage of the resources fir the benefit of the country future devilment and invest wisely for the progress on the nation.
    They must stop chasing the past ghosts and look forward to the future with the great help of International communities.

  2. #2 H Varney 01 Jun 12

    The new Sierra Leone TRC Report Website went live on the world wide web today.

    The web address is:

    The site hosts:

    1. Both text and pdf versions of the final report -- in easy to navigate format.
    2. 3 popular versions of the report: Video Version, Children's Report; and Secondary School Version.
    3. Recommendations Matrix - which includes an update of the implementation of the TRC recommendations
    4. Voices of the TRC -- video footage of testimony by victims, witnesses and commissioners
    5. National Vision for Sierra Leone -- includes image gallery and written submissions
    6. TRC research data
    7. Bibliography on the TRC
    8. Legal resources
    9. TRC image gallery
    10. Extensive links

    Please share the above link with colleagues. Feel free to post this link on your organization's website.

  3. #3 George Wright 10 Jun 12

    One of the most alarming aspects of the violence that Taylor helped unleash in Sierra Leone, was the large number of child soldiers involved. Apart from the important TRC report, there are also over 1,000 pages of research into the issue of child soldiers freely available on the website of the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy.
    A consequence of this problem, is the urgent need to provide unemployed young Sierra Leoneans with work, especially in farming - the country's main economic asset.
    IRIN, the UN news service, recently reported that many former diamond miners in the Kono district of Sierra Leone - a centre of some of the worst episodes in the civil war - are now taking up safer and more secure work in agriculture.
    The Kono district is at present the centre of an unusual farming initiative by a Sierra Leone NGO, the HURRARC - HUMAN RIGHTS RESPECT AWARENESS RAISING CAMPAIGNERS, which is now celebrating 20 years campaigning for human rights in Sierra Leone since the start of the civil war in 1992.
    HURRARC has this spring registered over 1300 agricultural smallholders to work for a communal project that will enable farmers both to assist each other on their smallholdings, and to cooperate on planting other crops on 14 collective plots of farmland in the Kono area.
    I'm a British teacher in Turin, and with Italian friends, since 2009,I've helped to launch a website, and coordinate visits from international volunteers from Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India and Italy. At present we're launching an international appeal for funds to help pay for seeds and tools.
    For more information, please consult the website, and contact the Director of HURRARC, Mr. Sahr.Gandi MP Fania, at [email protected]

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About the author

Sabrina Mahtani is a British-Zambian lawyer who has worked on human rights projects in Sierra Leone since 2005, including the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law and ‘Opin Yu Yi’ (‘Open Your Eyes’), the country’s first human rights film festival. She is the co-founder and executive director of AdvocAid, an organization supporting access to justice and strengthened rights for women in the criminal justice system in Sierra Leone.

Read more by Sabrina Mahtani

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