icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Report 35 / Africa

Sierra Leone: Managing Uncertainty

The international community is ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the durability of the peace it has supported in Sierra Leone. There are indeed some reasons for growing optimism. The deployment of a more robust United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), the disarmament of almost one half of the combatants, and the extension of government authority to almost all territory not controlled by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group are all welcome.

Executive Summary

The international community is ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the durability of the peace it has supported in Sierra Leone. There are indeed some reasons for growing optimism. The deployment of a more robust United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), the disarmament of almost one half of the combatants, and the extension of government authority to almost all territory not controlled by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group are all welcome. They are largely the result of a more robust policy by the international community, in particular military and diplomatic pressure exerted on the RUF and its sponsor, Liberian President Charles Taylor, by Britain, Guinea, Sierra Leone civil militias, and the UN Security Council.  

The RUF’s commitment to peace is fragile and dependent upon sustained international pressure.  The situation of ‘no war, no peace’ at the moment is thus one of both great jeopardy and great opportunity. Sierra Leone faces its best chance for peace in years, but the pressure responsible for creating this chance must be maintained and expanded. This realisation must shape international strategy, particularly in the crucial months leading up to the elections that are scheduled for 14 May 2002. 

A core component of that strategy should be to achieve ‘Security First’, that is durable security throughout the entire country, well before the May elections. This will require full disarmament of the RUF, of course, but also robust UNAMSIL deployment, which maximises the role of the strongest national contingents, particularly the Pakistani battalions, and restoration of government authority throughout the country. It will also require putting together a credible, coordinated deterrent force that includes British Army, UNAMSIL and Sierra Leone Army (SLA) elements. Above all, ‘Security First’ requires that UNAMSIL demand a far more stringent disarmament and demobilisation process and adopt a firmer approach in its negotiations with the RUF.

A second key component of international strategy must be directed at possible spoilers in the peace process besides the RUF, particularly the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and their associated Kamajor Civil Defence Forces (CDF). The SLA, which is being trained by British specialist troops, is also still a potential source of instability. Both CDF and SLA should be reformed and transformed under pressure to become more benign institutions whose loyalty to the state is ensured.

In addition, the United Nations and the British need to urgently consider the regional dimensions of the conflict. Pressure on President Taylor and his supporters must be increased, and the UN Secretariat should broaden its focus of its work in Sierra Leone to Guinea and Liberia.

Even assuming a good faith commitment by the parties and the establishment of security by election day, much will need to be done to ‘win the peace’. Lack of funding for reintegration programs threatens the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process, and a better public information job needs to be done to explain the Special Court to prevent fears of indictment from disrupting the peace process. To ensure that the elections themselves are free and fair (and so perceived), they should be run by the UN, not the Sierra Leone government.  

In short, Sierra Leone’s history of stalled or collapsed peace processes may yet repeat itself if the crucial next seven months are not managed with care. The international community should proceed with more caution than optimism.

Freetown/Brussels, 24 October 2001

Statement / Africa

Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators

The landmark guilty verdict today against former Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor is a warning to those most responsible for atrocity crimes that they can be held accountable.

A decade after the war in Sierra Leone, the Special Court’s ruling marks the first time that a former head of state has been found guilty of war-time atrocities by an internationally-backed court since the Nuremberg trials. The verdict is a fresh lesson to all those in power that they do not enjoy impunity and a sign of hope in Sierra Leone that those most responsible for the heinous crimes of the eleven-year civil war (1991-2002) are being brought to book. Nevertheless, Liberians are still waiting for Taylor and others to be tried for atrocities committed in the civil war in their country.

“The guilty verdict against Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) is a watershed moment in the fight to hold high-level perpetrators accountable”, says Gilles Yabi, Crisis Group’s West Africa Project Director. “It is also a momentous day for the victims’ families, who have waited patiently for this ruling since the court began its work”.

The verdict has been a long time coming. Taylor was indicted in March 2003 on multiple counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international law. He was accused of helping to plan, order and encourage acts including murder, terrorising civilians, mutilation, rape, sexual slavery and recruiting child soldiers. The charges stemmed from his support for Sierra Leone rebel groups as commander of the National Patriotic Front for Liberia from 1989 and after becoming president in 1997.

Under the peace agreement that ended Liberia’s civil war in 2003, Taylor resigned as president. He was granted exile in Nigeria but extradited in March 2006 to Freetown, at the request of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and after he violated the terms of his exile by meddling in Liberian politics. Owing to regional security concerns, his trial before the SCSL – a court set up jointly by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations – was held in The Hague.

This verdict ends the work of the court, which also convicted eight other individuals. Its mandate was to prosecute only those most responsible for the crimes within its jurisdiction. That brief was heavily criticised because it meant that many lesser perpetrators would go free, particularly given the weaknesses in Sierra Leone’s justice system. While the judgment sends a strong message that heads of state can be prosecuted, many Liberians may feel short-changed. Despite the long and costly work of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended prosecutions for the main perpetrators of atrocities during the Liberian civil war, impunity still prevails and remains an obstacle to national reconciliation.

“While this is a significant day for Sierra Leone, many in Liberia will have mixed feelings”, says Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director. “Taylor and other Liberians have yet to be held to account for crimes committed in Liberia’s civil war. Several suspects continue to serve in public office”.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels