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The not so Special Court for Sierra Leone

For seven years, the Special Court for Sierra Leone has stood resolute as Freetown’s moral landmark. To passers-by, the Mongolian guards that watch over the city from their UN-marked tower posts are a reassuring sight. Inside the complex, the familiar courthouse building that was designed to represent the scales of justice reminds visitors of its purpose.

The Special Court was established through an agreement between the UN Security Council and the Government of Sierra Leone in 2002 and mandated to try those that bore ‘the greatest responsibility’ for the country’s decade-long civil war. Thirteen indictments later, the judicial process in Freetown is almost at an end. But transitional justice in a post-conflict country goes beyond prolonged prison sentences. It’s about transforming society and embedding faith in the rule of law.

The Special Court is something of a legend in the world of international justice. In piercing former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s head-of-state immunity they paved the way for the International Criminal Court’s move on Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. By recognizing the recruitment of child soldiers and sexual slavery as crimes under international law, they struck a blow for the rights of war-traumatized women and children everywhere.

However, criminal justice can only serve as a deterrent if its awareness seeps down to every level of society. Right from the early days Court officials interacted directly with people in town halls and villages, discussing human rights, the laws used in the indictments and why the acts were considered crimes against humanity. Average Sierra Leoneans were asked for their opinions and encouraged to question those in authority.

Following the trials and creatively designed outreach activities, most people can wax eloquent about human rights and humanitarian law. Sierra Leonean journalist Umaru Fofana recalls growing up in the provinces believing that justice was only for those that could afford it. He says that the Court has ‘changed mindsets about impunity’.

Others are of the view that the Court’s presence subjected Sierra Leonean laws to international scrutiny. The Court’s endorsement of humanitarian law was partly responsible for the passing of critical gender and child protection legislation in 2007. But it failed to influence how these laws were actually put into practice, thus cutting into its moral authority. 

A strange paradox

There is a joke in Sierra Leone that every single detainee at the Special Court has gained weight during incarceration due to the quality food on offer. At the regular courts, detainees’ rights are non-existent and prison cells are packed like meat freezers. Victims are savagely cross-examined and there is no witness protection programme. Crippling delays in case management are compounded by rampant corruption. In short, going to court in Sierra Leone is nothing like going to the Special Court.     

The Special Court probably spent up to $23 million on every defendant, while the cash-strapped local justice system is yet to establish a national legal aid office

The Special Court is the first war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg to be located in the country where the crimes were committed. Just before and during the war, Sierra Leone’s national judiciary had become defunct. As a result, the Court’s social responsibility transcended its mandate. It also needed to strengthen people’s belief in a system of justice that works. On the surface it has succeeded. There’s no denying the cathartic effect of watching Charles Taylor and other rebel leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) held accountable for their role in the war. The Court demonstrated that everyone had the right to a defence and that being accused of a crime did not quash a person’s dignity.

But the benchmarks set by the Special Court proved somewhat unrealistic to achieve in the Sierra Leonean system. A recent report by the International Centre for Transitional Justice, From the Taylor Trial to a Lasting Legacy: Putting the Special Court Model to the Test, estimates that the Special Court probably spent up to $23 million on every defendant, while the cash-strapped local justice system is yet to establish a national legal aid office. A pilot project is currently in the pipeline. The Court trained members of the police force who, back in the real world, still struggle to live on $30 a month. The Special Court’s brand of justice has been inspiring but ultimately irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people.   

Mariatu Kamara is one of many Sierra Leoneans whose interest in the Special Court has waned. Kamara, aged 23, is a war amputee and co-author of The Bite of the Mango, her memoir of the civil war years that was published in Canada in 2008. ‘Even if they let everyone go free, it will not make a difference to my suffering. If they killed them, it would not make up for the suffering of thousands,’ she says.

Kamara is asking why the Court didn’t do more for the victims of the war. Many Sierra Leoneans – war wounded, widows and children – who are still awaiting reparations from the Government begrudge the Special Court the foreign aid it receives. ‘Why does the court need so much money? I don’t have enough to feed my family,’ says Kadiatu Sesay, another amputee who lives in the Kroo Bay slum in the capital city Freetown.

The Special Court, unlike its predecessors, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, depends on voluntary contributions from international donors. This has tied its hands when it comes to getting financially involved and closing some of the gaps between its style of justice and the deeply flawed Sierra Leonean model.

A court apart

In 2006 an independent report commissioned by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan found that the Court’s impact on the national judiciary had been minimal, neither inspiring law reforms nor ensuring respect for the rule of law. 

One of the criticisms is of their arm’s-length style of operation. Like the war tribunals in Timor-Leste and Kosovo, the Court was designed to be hybrid in nature, which meant that both national and international lawyers would be involved in the judicial process. However, Mohamed Suma, director of non-governmental organization the Sierra Leone Court Monitoring Programme, says that until two years ago the ‘judges of our court didn’t know the Special Court judges or the procedures that were being followed’.

Only a few senior Sierra Leonean lawyers were invited into the initial stages of prosecution. The expectation was that practitioners who trained at the Court could transfer values, ethics and skills into remoulding the national judiciary. However, estranged lawyers who were suspicious of the Court to begin with had their sentiments reinforced by this hands-off approach.

This attitude was justifiable in the beginning. If anything, the war had proved that justice could be bought. Political alliances are divisive in Sierra Leone and the architects of the Special Court no doubt wanted to operate independent of the volatile political climate. However, as time went by, this strategy isolated the Court from the national judiciary.

Melron Nicol-Wilson, one of Sierra Leone’s best known human rights lawyers, tries to raise the bar by citing Special Court verdicts in the local courts. Nicol-Wilson served as a defence counsel and case manager between 2003 and 2007. But his colleagues snicker sometimes because they think he’s showing off. Their attitude towards the Court is a combination of apathy and disdain.

In later years the Court conducted some cut-and-paste skills training without really understanding the institutional framework of the national system. It’s no surprise that insiders confess most of this is not being practically applied. While the Court was able to train some individuals, they failed to influence an entire system.

The Taylor trial

Far away from Sierra Leone, the trial of Charles Taylor continues in The Hague. In the beginning, the Special Court’s location allowed victims unprecedented access to the proceedings. During the RUF trials, the courtrooms in Freetown were always packed to capacity. So when in 2006 Charles Taylor was transferred to an International Criminal Court chamber in The Hague, it also wrested away people’s ownership of the process.

Moving Charles Taylor to The Hague made him answerable to an international jury, but took the Sierra Leonean populace out of the equation

The official justification was that Taylor still had supporters in Liberia and Sierra Leone and his presence would destabilize a fledgling peace in the region. Valnora Edwin, a civil society activist in Freetown, says that this was the latest in a series of disappointments. Foday Sankoh, the RUF leader, had died; Johnny Paul Koroma, the head of the AFRC, was absconding or presumed dead, and now Taylor had been whisked away. ‘A deep dissatisfaction with the Court developed because of this,’ says Edwin.

The trial at The Hague was still broadcast live on the Special Court website but with feeble internet speeds in Sierra Leone this proved to be a misguided attempt at keeping locals involved. Moving Taylor to The Hague made him answerable to an international jury, but took the Sierra Leonean populace out of the equation.

The final verdict

The consensus is that the Special Court will not be missed when its officials leave Sierra Leone. In their final months, Court officials have become obsessed with leaving a judicial legacy. But can they make a dent in people’s disillusion?

One of the current preoccupations is the fate of the sprawling 4.65 hectare court complex. Some of the options being discussed are a regional judicial training facility, a museum, or an extension of the Sierra Leone Law School. The archives of all the trials and judgments will also be housed here. The problem is that maintenance of the compound currently costs $1,066,300 annually. So the Government will inherit a structure it cannot possibly run without aid, defeating the purpose of a transfer of responsibility.

Many Sierra Leoneans are displeased at the thought of the convicts serving time in comfortable prisons abroad while socio-economic conditions at home continue to deteriorate. If convicted, Taylor will serve out his sentence in Britain. Other rebel convicts are also due to be transferred out of the country to serve their sentences, most probably to Rwanda.

Despite some of its successes, the Special Court’s legacy may end up as writing on the wall that no-one’s reading. Sierra Leoneans have become accustomed to UN missions coming and going. When the Special Court finally signs out, they will add its name to the departure list. And people will still have a system marked by inertia and corruption, with little to remember the Court by.

Sulakshana Gupta is a freelance journalist, currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, from where she blogs for NI: http://blog.newint.org/

New Internationalist issue 427 magazine cover This article is from the November 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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