Friday, July 13, 2007

As Sentencing Approaches, Cynicism About Sierra Leone Tribunal Lingers

LONDON - Three militia generals found guilty for their roles in Sierra Leone's brutal civil war are expected to be sentenced Monday in the first step towards winding down the four-year, $90 million proceedings at the ad hoc war crimes tribunal.
"The AFRC committed untold horrors -- mutilations, rapes, massacres, abductions -- throughout the towns and villages of Sierra Leone," Human Rights Watch researcher Corinne Dufka told WPR, who herself documented scores of cases of abuse by those under the command of the generals in custody.

"They effectively waged war against the civilian population, leaving a trail of loss and destruction in their wake. The guilty verdict will not only bring justice for the victims and their families, but also put future would-be perpetrators on notice that wars have rules, and these rules must be respected."
But with four of the five most important defendants dead and the fifth, former Liberian president Charles Taylor, in the dock in the Hague over fears he could still destabilize the fragile peace settled on West Africa, the cynicism and skepticism that greeted the court's opening in 2004 has not lessened with the guilty verdicts.
A foregone conclusion; victor's justice; a salvo to the West: each of those scornful pronouncements was uttered by Sierra Leonean media and pundits in the wake of the June 20 verdict, even as human rights organizations hailed the decisive action taken by the three-judge panel that will on July 16 hand down what are expected to be life sentences.
"I was one of those who supported the idea of setting up the Special Court and I know that one of the reasons the war was so bloody, so murderous, was because there was a sense of impunity. So I supported the idea of prosecuting those who were behind the war. But I think that it has been failing very largely," said Lansana Gberie, a Freetown-based academic who authored "A Dirty War in West Africa" about the conflict that raged from 1991-2001 in the impoverished former British colony.

"It's a charade, frankly, put up by the British and the Americans and fancy human rights groups around the world to assuage their own guilt. It may satisfy them, but it doesn't satisfy Sierra Leoneans."
More Sierra Leoneans would have found some measure of satisfaction from an efficient and well-resourced Truth and Reconciliation Commission, argues Suleymane Tejan Cie, a former lawyer for Sam Hinga Norman, one of the court's indictees who died in custody.
But the commission that was established was overshadowed by the court, both financially and in its scope.
"The TRC was not successful because certain key people who could have testified were not allowed to because of the Special Court," he said. "People were not looking anymore at them as perpetrators or belligerents, people were looking at a united SL where everybody was saying sorry to everybody. That was the mood of the country and the Special Court just got rid of that and people became tense."
The court's funding mechanism -- largely donations from former colonial power Britain and the United States -- also elicits harsh criticism from residents of the country of some five million people, the vast majority of whom live in poverty without access to clean water, sanitation, education or electricity.
Disdainfully, critics contend that money could have been used to build schools and hospitals, to bolster the shattered infrastructure of a country where, at one point in the halcyon post-independence days in 1961, there were double-decker buses plying paved roads, carrying students in foppish coats and ties to university.
Such accounting becomes all the more damning when measured against the roster of just who has been considered to bear "the greatest responsibility" for a war that claimed more than 100,000 lives by conservative estimates, and wreaked havoc by pitting neighbor against neighbor for over a decade.
The eight in custody at the prison alongside the gleaming court building atop one of Freetown's rolling hills -- one of the only significant construction projects to be undertaken in the seaside capital since the end of the war -- represent the military junta that took power briefly in 1997, a pro-government militia known as the Kamajors as well as the rebel movement bankrolled in no small part by diamond-smuggling allegedly orchestrated by Taylor.
The crimes of their conscripts notwithstanding, the eight lack the notoriety of their now-dead leaders, who themselves participated in the wholesale torture, rape and murder of civilians and opposing forces: Foday Sankoh, the one-time wedding photographer who first thought of using drug-addled young boys to fight his battle; his first lieutenant Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, who pioneered the use of amputations to bring villages into line; and junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma, who led a bloodless coup in 1997 that precipitated the country's hapless plunge back into civil war.
Sam Hinga Norman, the Kamajor leader who died in custody earlier this year, was considered a hero by a substantial subset of the population -- including a former British high commissioner for Sierra Leone -- for having beat back the rebels to end the war. His indictment was roundly criticized and also seen as a delegitimization of the court.
"My idea of the Special Court is more exalted than trying common criminals, thieves , murderers. Certain standards have to be set. These people are not significant enough to justify a trial of this magnitude, " said Gberie.
The three indictees from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council -- Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara and Santigie -- were relatively minor players in the military junta, rising through the ranks with every massacre perpetrated on the civilian population.
"A lot of the people in the army don't even know them; these are just very junior wayward soldiers," Gberie added. "Ask any person on the streets of Freetown who has suffered in the war whether they know anything about the AFRC people. They don't know them! It has absolutely no bearing on fighting impunity in Sierra Leone -- none whatsoever."
Such impunity still lingers in Sierra Leone, even as the country braces for elections many fear will only stir the longstanding faults seemingly endemic to the country: a lack of transparency, rampant corruption, nepotism and government by fear rather than rule of law.
Concrete effects of war, too, are lingering. Even now, six years since the end of the war, young women who were raped by rebels or army irregulars have been cast out from their homes, their offspring -- products of those rapes, most often at gun- or machete-point -- unwanted by those family members who remain.
"Most of the conditions that fueled the war are still in existence: widespread poverty, unemployment, a lot of anger against the elite," said Gberie. "There are still people out there who will find opportunities in war. You sit with them in their ghettos and some of them will wish any day for some kind of violence so that they can loot shops, steal food and money."
Such malaise could undermine any successes achieved by the court and the international interventions to restore justice to Sierra Leone, Dufka said.
"The success and failure of the court has to be based on the degree to which there are attitudinal changes; there needs to be a venting of the mentality that [so-called] big men can get away with whatever they want," she said.
"That is measurable when Sierra Leone itself is ready to hold leaders accountable for economic crimes, and the manipulation of power, when they take a closer look at the behavior of their elected representatives."

World Politics Review | As Sentencing Approaches, Cynicism About Sierra Leone Tribunal Lingers