Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Fresh Start?
Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Fresh Start?
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Briefing 12 / Africa

Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Fresh Start?

Since January 2002 when President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah officially declared Sierra Leone’s brutal eleven year civil war over, numerous efforts have been made to consolidate the peace.

I. Overview

Since January 2002 when President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah officially declared Sierra Leone’s brutal eleven year civil war over, numerous efforts have been made to consolidate the peace. The 14 May election in which the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group participated and was politically defeated, was, even if flawed, a significant step forward.[fn]For details see ICG Africa Report N°49, Sierra Leone After Elections: Politics as Usual?, 12 July 2002, pp. 3-7.Hide Footnote  The country seems internally secure for the first time in over a decade, despite looming trouble across the border due to fighting between Liberian government forces and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) insurgents.

Regional insecurity has not diminished the optimistic belief among citizens that Sierra Leone has entered a new phase. Nonetheless, the transition from war to peace is fraught with dangers. Many root causes of the conflict remain unresolved, including high levels of corruption, greed, uneven distribution of revenue from natural resources, a weak and compromised judicial system, and widespread poverty. Immediate challenges are to bring to justice those responsible for crimes committed during the war and to reconcile a war-torn nation.

Two transitional justice mechanisms have been set up to address these latter requirements: the Special Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Special Court is meant to adjudicate the cases of those accused of bearing greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is the core institutional means of addressing impunity. The TRC is mandated to create “an impartial, historical record of the conflict”, “address impunity; respond to the needs of victims; promote healing and reconciliation; and prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered”.[fn]The Truth and Reconciliation Act of 2000, Part III “Functions of the Commission”, 22 February 2000; “Called to Serve: A Profile of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, Published by the Media and Public Education Unit of the Commission, October 2002, p. 2. Unlike its South African predecessor, the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission has no power to grant amnesty. It is also smaller, with fewer commissioners and staff. For more on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, see Priscilla Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions (New York, 2002), pp. 40-45.Hide Footnote  These hybrid institutions – each with an international as well as a national component – have only begun to operate in the last few months.

This briefing paper focuses on the difficulties faced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC has its origins in the 7 July 1999 Lomé peace agreement between the Government of Sierra Leone and the RUF. Unfortunately, the Lomé process quickly collapsed, and resumption of the war delayed establishment of the TRC, despite legislation that formally provided for its creation in 2000. In early 2001, with improving stability in the country, serious efforts were made by both national and international actors to set the process in motion. This led to creation of the TRC’s Interim Secretariat in March 2002 followed by the inauguration of the TRC proper on 5 July 2002.

In a report at that time, ICG noted a number of concerns about government manipulation of the selection of key officials, the relationship between the TRC and the Special Court, and lack of funding.[fn]ICG Report, Sierra Leone after Elections, op. cit., pp. 17-19.Hide Footnote  From July to December 2002, ICG continued to monitor the TRC and found substantial problems with its start-up performance. These could undermine the hopes of many victims of war and indeed perpetrators to tell their stories and ultimately impair the institution’s contribution to reconciliation. Many specific problems facing the TRC are rooted in the three-month preparatory phase that followed the formal launch and left it ill-prepared to begin its operational phase on schedule in October. Apparent inaction in October and November resulted in a growing lack of confidence among donors and Sierra Leone’s civil society.

Management issues have stymied the process from the start. As these multiplied during the preparatory phase, tensions arose between the national and international members and between the TRC and the Geneva-based Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).[fn]OHCHR provides technical assistance and raises funds for the TRC.Hide Footnote  Funding has been a severe problem from the start. Donor fatigue, poor fundraising efforts by the TRC and by OHCHR, and management difficulties have discouraged donors.

On 4 December 2002, the TRC deployed statement takers, who are to collect the stories from all citizens who wish to come forward, regardless of war-time affiliation. These stories will be the basis for public hearings in early 2003 and for the creation of an official historical record of the war. However, the TRC commissioners are still a largely dysfunctional body that has not yet developed a comprehensive operational plan.

Since October, a concerted effort between OHCHR and the TRC has produced some positive signs. The arrival of new and qualified staff through a more transparent hiring process is expected to resolve accusations of political bias and inefficiency. An effort is being made to reach out to civil society and build partnerships with a number of local organisations.

Given the TRC’s limited time mandate,[fn]The enabling legislation provides for a twelve-month operational phase, which technically began on 5 October 2002. However, as discussed below, work was essentially suspended for much of October and November and resumed in earnest only in December. Under the law, the commissioners are entitled to request one six-month extension if they deem it necessary – to April 2004, presumably.Hide Footnote  a number of measures must be taken urgently to keep it on track, in particular improving the work of the commissioners and relations between the national and international staff within the TRC, and between nationals and OHCHR. The latter cannot remain distant, only sending in trouble-shooters at moments of crisis. Although the TRC is a national and independent institution, OHCHR, which controls the purse strings, should take a more hands-on approach. The TRC must show it is working well in order to provide donors with concrete reasons to support it. For its part, the international community must be actively engaged to ensure that the TRC plays its crucial role in the peace process.

Freetown/Brussels, 20 December 2002

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

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