The Protection of Children and the Quest for Truth and Justice in Sierra Leone

Article excerpt

"How the acts and experiences of children are addressed in Sierra Leone--within the processes established to seek truth and justice, by the UN and international agencies, by government ministries, through national legislative reform, or institutional strengthening efforts, by local communities--must all be carefully monitored, supported and evaluated to help ensure the best interests of Sierra Leonean children and to contribute to improved practice in similar situations elsewhere."

ILENE COHN (1)

Some of the many children who have endured a decade of armed conflict in Sierra Leone will soon be involved in efforts to establish truth and impart justice in the aftermath of egregious abuses committed by the warring parties. A Special Court for Sierra Leone, which will seek to prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes, including those committed against and sometimes by children during the war, is being established by agreement between the United Nations (UN) and the Government of Sierra Leone. A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which will seek to clarify the war's impact on children and pay particular attention to the role of children in perpetrating abuses, is in the early stages of formation. No previous or existing truth commission or war crimes tribunal has explicitly sought to expose or administer justice for abuses perpetrated on or by children. (2)

The creation of these truth and justice-seeking mechanisms has generated an important debate, both internationally and in Sierra Leone, about the potential of such processes to assist in the recovery and reintegration of individual children, the post-conflict healing of families and communities, and social reconciliation in general. At present, both the TRC and the Special Court for Sierra Leone are in the planning stages. Though child rights advocates, human rights specialists, lawyers, and child protection experts differ over how best to advance the interests of children within Sierra Leone's truth and justice-seeking mechanisms, the respective constitutive instruments do ensure that the TRC and the Special Court can address the rights and advance the interests of child victims, witnesses and perpetrators. But the debate over how this should be done reveals how little is known at the international level about the ways in which juvenile justice or truth-telling procedures can help heal children exposed to or involved in armed conflict, and how these processes can be structured to help children rejoin and participate in civilian life. This article will review how the involvement of children in truth commissions and war crimes tribunals has been discussed and addressed in the context of Sierra Leone. It will also describe the outstanding questions in need of urgent attention if the positive potential of truth commissions and war crimes tribunals is to be harnessed for the benefit of war-affected children in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

BACKGROUND

The horrors of the war that has ravaged Sierra Leone since1991 have been recounted time and again -- massacres, rape of girls as young as eight years, mutilations, including the wanton amputation of limbs, butchery of pregnant women, abduction of children, torture and arson. Many of the hundreds of thousands of displaced children have been separated from their families or orphaned. Amnesty International has estimated that over 5,000 girls and boys, some as young as six, have fought with armed groups and forces.

On 7 July 1999 the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) signed the Lome peace agreement, which recognized "the imperative that the children of Sierra Leone, especially those affected by the armed conflict, ... are entitled to special care and protection...." (3) Several of the accord's provisions would, if ever fully implemented, be of great benefit to children. For example, the Government was to mobilize resources to address the special needs of child soldiers within the demobilization and reintegration process. …