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The Special Court for Sierra Leone: Promises and Pitfalls of a “New Model”
The Special Court for Sierra Leone: Promises and Pitfalls of a “New Model”
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Briefing 16 / Africa

The Special Court for Sierra Leone: Promises and Pitfalls of a “New Model”

I. Overview

Nineteen months after its eleven-year civil war was declared over, Sierra Leone is attempting to bring to justice “those who bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity”. On 10 March 2003, under the codename, “Operation Justice”, the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued its first public indictments and carried out its first arrests, targeting top commanders of armed groups, including the prominent cabinet minister and national commander of the civil defence forces Chief Sam Hinga Norman.[fn]Chief Sam Hinga Norman was Minster of Internal Affairs when he was indicted and arrested.  See the Appendix for profiles of all those indicted by the Special Court.Hide Footnote  On 4 June, it took a more dramatic step, one that upset a number of capitals, including Washington, and brought it into the global spotlight: as President Charles Taylor of Liberia travelled to Ghana for peace talks, Prosecutor David Crane unsealed an indictment originally issued against him on 3 March, served an arrest warrant on Ghanaian authorities, and transmitted the warrant to Interpol.

This is a status report on the Special Court, which was created in January 2002 and officially started to function on 1 July 2002. The Chief Prosecutor (Crane) and the Registrar (Robin Vincent) arrived in Freetown by early August.[fn]Robin Vincent had also visited Freetown on several occasions before August 2002.Hide Footnote  The former’s office was working at full capacity by November.[fn]ICG interview with David Crane, Freetown, 7 March 2003.Hide Footnote  Though the Registry and Chambers are less fully developed, and trials are not expected to start until November 2003, the relative rapidity with which it has been moving suggests it may meet the target it has set for itself of completing its work within three years.[fn]ICG interview with Special Court Registry official, April 2003.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, the Special Court is only in its first stages. The main task of running fair and expeditious trials is still ahead. The role of its judges will be crucial, as will that of the Defence Office, which is only now being formed.

It is early days but a number of concerns have arisen about the way the prosecutor has interpreted Sierra Leone’s conflict in various statements, the procedures surrounding some indictments, and in particular, the perceived Americanisation of the Court. The U.S. government, its main donor, wishes the Special Court to succeed at least in part in the expectation that a demonstration of how such an ad hoc tribunal can handle the gravest of war crimes and crimes against humanity will reduce the widely perceived need for the new International Criminal Court that the Bush administration strongly opposes. While the subtle links alleged on several occasions by Prosecutor Crane between diamonds and al-Qaeda terrorist networks can be interpreted as an attempt to increase U.S. interest, they are also seen by many in Sierra Leone as examples of the Court being used to promote U.S. foreign policy interests. Against this background, it is important that the Court not lose focus. It needs to be careful not to appear to be subject to outside influence if it wants to fulfil its mandate with impartiality and provide a “new model” for international justice.

One of the main challenges faced by the Special Court is ensuring that its workings are transparent. Substantial security concerns have arisen around the arrests and indictments of the civil defence force commanders, the Director of War Operations for the Kamajors, Moinina Fofana, and the former Kamajor High Priest, Allieu Kondewa, as well as Chief Norman. Some of the security problems result from the fact that the Court is located in Sierra Leone, unlike the UN tribunals for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and for Rwanda (ICTR), which sit outside the countries of concern.[fn]The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established in May 1993 by the UN Security Council to try those held responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the Balkans conflict since 1991. It is based in The Hague, the Netherlands. ( The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was created in November 1994 with a mandate to try those considered responsible for similar offences committed in that country in 1994. It is based in Arusha, Tanzania ( See ICG Balkans Report No. 103 War Criminals in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska: who are the people in your neighbourhood?, 2 November 2000; ICG Africa Report No. 30, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda: Justice Delayed, 7 June 2001, and ICG Africa Report No. 50, The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda: The Countdown, 1 August 2002.Hide Footnote  However, the location can also be the advantage it was meant to be if the Court makes a constant effort to keep the population and the media fully informed of its thinking and its actions. Its outreach dimension has come some way but more effort is required to educate about its work a population that is 80 per cent illiterate.  The Court has been accused of being distant from local journalists and insufficiently attentive to opportunities to involve them in informing Sierra Leone’s citizens.

The controversial question of what the Special Court experience may mean for the future of the ICC aside, it was established as a hybrid body – part international, part national – in order to provide a cheaper and more expeditious alternative to the fully international tribunal of the type used for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Donors must now give it a fair chance to demonstrate its value by providing political support and delivering on their financial pledges. This is all the more necessary because in the eyes of many in Sierra Leone, it suffers from a crisis of legitimacy. The former commander of the RUF insurgents, Foday Sankoh, died while under arrest on 29 July 2003; the former battlefield commander of the RUF, Sam Bockarie apparently also is dead, as may be Johnny Paul Koroma, the leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) 1997 military junta. Charles Taylor has thus far escaped arrest. The absence of these high profile indictees undermines the Court’s credibility in the eyes of ordinary citizens.

Another important question is whether the UN Security Council will enhance the Court’s power and prestige by giving it a mandate under Chapter VII of the Charter, which would require all member states of the world organisation to comply with its orders, including its indictments and arrest orders for high profile figures such as Charles Taylor. Both the ICTY and the ICTR have Chapter VII mandates.[fn]See websites of the ICTY and the ICTR, at and respectively.Hide Footnote  While the issue has been complicated by the diplomatic manoeuvres under way to remove Taylor from Liberia as part of the effort to end that country’s civil conflict, ICG believes that such a decision is needed.[fn]Since the announcement of Charles Taylor’s indictment, ICG has called upon the UN Security Council to enhance the powers of the Court under a Chapter VII mandate. See ICG Memorandum, “Crisis in Liberia: A Call to Action”, 10 June 2003; Gareth Evans and Comfort Ero, “How to secure peace in Liberia”, Observer Online, 29 June 2003; and ICG Media Release, “Liberia: ICG urges U.S. to lead a robust multinational force”, 16 July 2003, all available at the ICG website, Footnote  A Chapter VII mandate would not guarantee state compliance, but without it, the Special Court will continue to face unnecessary obstacles.

Freetown/Brussels, 4 August 2003

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”.