War crimes trials: Measuring the impact in Sierra Leone and Liberia

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The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone was characterized by acts of horrific violence which led to four war crimes trials, three in Freetown and one in The Hague. Now that the sentences have been handed down and defendants such as Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, are no longer in the headlines, Jon Silverman argues that it is time to assess the influence of the trials on civil society in both countries and to ask whether they have contributed not only to justice but to civic self- confidence. Jon is a Research Professor in Media and Criminal Justice at the University of Bedfordshire. He has been leading a project, funded by the British Academy, to examine the impact of war crimes trials on civil society in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

On the first occasion that Charles Taylor’s mainly English defence team went to Freetown, they were asked by the outreach section of the Special Court for Sierra Leone to address a citizens’ gathering at the national stadium. Their reception was hostile. ‘How can you defend this man ? He paid the RUF (the Revolutionary United Front rebels) to cut my legs off ?’ was a common accusation. The first few times that lead QC, Courtenay Griffiths, arrived at the airport, there were countless bureaucratic difficulties at the immigration desk.  By the end of the five year trial, he was being ushered through like a VIP. This was not because sympathy for Taylor’s cause had grown in a country ravaged by the conflict he had bankrolled but because of a growing understanding of the adversarial justice process in which the defence had as important a role to play as the prosecution.

If I attribute this to the educative influence of a project run by the BBC World Service Trust (since re-named BBC Media Action) to provide daily radio reports of the trial to the citizens of Sierra Leone and Liberia from the courtroom in The Hague, I could rightly be judged parti pris since I was the consultant/mentor to the journalists covering the proceedings. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that that sense of remoteness from war crimes justice felt in Rwanda (whose trials took place in Arusha in neighbouring Tanzania ), was not as prevalent in either Sierra Leone or Liberia as a result of the daily reportage.

 But while the project may claim a footnote in accounts of the transitional justice (tj) process in both countries, I’m always mindful of Elizabeth Evanston’s formula that tj ‘…..also demands the civic and social transformation needed to ensure that abuses are not repeated in the future.’ (Evanston 2004 : 753).  Sierra Leone lurched into the abyss after more than a decade of corrupt and incompetent governance and a post-conflict priority has been to imbue civil society ( a problematic term in an African context, I acknowledge, which only a longer blog would afford the space to unpick) with a sense of self-confidence. One of the ‘success’ stories has been the work of the Campaign for Good Governance, operating ‘ through a citizens engagement scheme which promotes civil society groups….in monitoring public sector delivery and performance’ (Macauley 2012 : 49). Many of these ‘active’ citizens attended the Taylor trial and helped connect it to the everyday lives of Sierra Leoneans.

An equally positive influence is the Liberia Media for Democratic Initiatives (LMDI), which, since 2010, has organised a series of rolling public debates in which concerned citizens can confront elected politicians about the issues of the day. The debates are then broadcast on a network of community radio stations. The prime mover behind this experiment is a veteran journalist called John Kollie, who also happened to be among the first cohort of reporters to cover the Taylor trial in The Hague. Whilst it might be thought reductive to claim a direct lineage between that awareness-raising project and his latest venture, the same fundamental concept – using the media as an agent of civic participation – is at work in both.

One of the biggest obstacles to rebuilding civic cohesion in countries ravaged by internecine conflict is a residual sense of grievance that only a tiny minority of killers – those deemed to have borne ‘ the greatest responsibility’ – faced justice. This is true even of Rwanda where the government estimates that nearly two million people have appeared before grassroots gacaca hearings. In Sierra Leone, there was no attempt to establish domestic justice and the sight of self-confessed killers and mutilators freely walking the streets is a continuing affront to many victims and their families. Critics argue that the government decided to ‘offload’ its own responsibility onto the Special Court, though you can make a plausible case for saying that by putting in place both trials and a Truth Commission, the government of Sierra Leone was certainly not lacking in courage in confronting the past.

It is sometimes argued that the template of retributive justice as expressed through war crimes trials is never going to sit comfortably in an African context, where, in the main, restorative ideas achieved through different forms of mediation are more culturally appropriate. But I believe that this is to confine Africa to an exceptionalist box, set apart from a world of normative human rights values where the concept of the ‘big man’ excercising power with impunity has rightly been challenged (if not yet universally overtaken ) by concepts of democracy and accountability.

Yes, as a process, there is no arguing that war crimes trials, whether ad hoc or hybrid, as in the case of Sierra Leone, have many imperfections and the justice they deliver is often flawed. It is regrettable that hitherto, the permanent International Criminal Court has given the appearance of using Africa as a laboratory to test out its early prosecutions. But although truth commissions, gacaca and ‘judgments’ made by paramount chiefs can provide a level of catharsis, they are merely links in a chain. It is the embedding of sound and fair governance which is the most robust bulwark against the abuse of power and, by provoking national debates and encouraging wider civic engagement, the reporting of the trials of those most responsible for the conflict in Sierra Leone has been a building block in that process.

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