Searching for Answers: Sierra Leone's Truth & Reconciliation Commission

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Abstract: This article examines the creation and operation of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission and offers an assessment of its work to date. Despite the brutal atrocities committed during the decade-long conflict, the 1999 Lome Peace Agreement granted a full amnesty to all sides. The TRC was established as an accountability mechanism, and tasked with investigating and reporting on the causes, context and conduct of the war and with offering both victims and perpetrators a public forum in which to relate their experiences. During a multiphase process in 2002-2003, the TRC collected over 9,000 statements and conducted reconciliation activities. However, the TRC lacked adequate funding and suffered from serious mismanagement and staff recruitment problems. Its relationship with the contemporaneous Special Court for Sierra Leone ran into difficulties at the end of 2003 that bruised both institutions. The TRC successfully gained the participation of major stakeholder groups--women and girls, children, amputees and ex-combatants--but its larger impact on society remains to be seen. The TRC's contribution to peace and reconciliation in Sierra Leone rests on its final report, which is months overdue.

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Sierra Leoneans suffered through a brutal ten-year war marked by the commission of appalling atrocities. The rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the military junta Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) committed the most egregious abuses, including the widespread use of purposeful amputation, but the pro-government forces--the Civil Defense Forces (CDFs) and the peacekeeping troops of the Economic Community of West African States Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG)--also perpetrated violations of humanitarian law. Indiscriminate killing, rape and sexual slavery, the use of children as combatants, and arson were widespread tactics in a war of terror mainly directed at civilians. By the war's end in January 2000, an estimated 50-75,000 people were dead, two million had been displaced, tens of thousands of women and girls had been raped or forced into sexual slavery, thousands of children had participated in the fighting, and some 4,000 people had been the victims of purposeful amputation. The scars of the war are evident. Sierra Leone ranks last (177/177) on the Human Development Index, the result of high infant, child and maternal mortality rates, an illiteracy rate estimated at 80%, extremely low enrollments in school at all levels, and extreme poverty, with 75% of the population living on two dollars a day or less. Most starkly, the average life expectancy at birth in Sierra Leone is 34.3 years. (1)

Sierra Leoneans are still struggling to come to terms with the calamity that befell them, asking two simple, yet momentous questions: Why Sierra Leone? What went wrong? (2) One facet of the effort to get at the answers is a truth and reconciliation commission, which has been given the enormous task of not only allowing victims and perpetrators to tell what happened, but to uncover why it happened. It is hoped such a process can promote societal reconciliation and offer recommendations to prevent violence from occurring again.

This article offers an assessment of the work of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SLTRC) to date. First, it examines critical elements of the establishment of the SLTRC, including its mandate, the role of civil society and international actors, staffing and management, funding, and relationship with a contemporaneous transitional justice institution, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). It then assesses the success of the SLTRC, using the criteria established by Priscilla Hayner in her groundbreaking comparative study of truth commissions: process, product and impact. (3) Process encompasses engaging the public, gaining the full participation of stakeholders, and how supportive the work is to victims and survivors. …