Will Justice Help Peace?

By Penfold, Peter | The World Today, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Will Justice Help Peace?


Penfold, Peter, The World Today


While the United States is fighting a rearguard action to limit the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court over American citizens, it is bankrolling a Special Court to deal with atrocities in Sierra Leone which is far from universally popular there.

THE SPECIAL COURT IS expected to begin work shortly as part of the peace and reconciliation process. Established by the UN and the government of Sierra Leone, with strong backing from Washington, it aims to bring to justice those most guilty of the terrible atrocities which occurred during the bloody conflict This hybrid court - using both local and international law - has not been tried before, and its performance will be monitored closely to see whether it provides a model for dealing with justice in other conflict areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq. But will justice help the peace process in Sierra Leone?

So far there has been little public enthusiasm for the Court. The Sierra Leonean people have shown themselves to be amazingly forgiving, but they are also very fatalistic. They will never forget the awful brutality heaped upon them, not least when many loved ones were killed and with the sight of such a large number of amputees all around. They undoubtedly feel that there should be some accounting for these terrible tragedies, but in the spirit of peace and reconciliation many feel that it is for God or Allah to determine retribution. They cite numerous examples of notorious countrymen, such as former President Siaka Stevens, who committed many misdeeds but whose lives were cut short or ended in penury and misery.

After a decade of fighting and destruction the peace is holding. Combatants have been disarmed and the new army is being trained. Peaceful democratic elections in May saw the return of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government. In September the UN Security Council approved a further six month extension of UNAMSIL which, while plans are in train to phase down, remains the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world. The government, assisted by the UN and the donor community, especially Britain, continues to establish and expand its areas of control.

RECONCILIATION OR JUSTICE?

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is being set up alongside the Special-Court, but there is much confusion over their respective roles. With a mix of local and international commissioners the TRC is chaired by the head ofthe local Methodist church, Bishop Joseph Humper, and has an energetic Sierra Leonean lawyer, Yasmin Jusu-Sheriff, as its executive secretary. Modeled on the South African Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it will provide a platform for victims to relate their painful experiences and for the perpetrators to seek forgiveness. There are no legal powers to prosecute or punish.

By contrast the Special Court will have such powers. Established by the UN and through an Act passed in the Sierra Leone parliament, it will sit inside the country and apply both international and Sierra Leonean law. Though administered by the UN it is an independent judicial body. A large team of international prosecutors is being assembled, led by eminent American lawyer David Crane, and including a former legal advisor to former US President Bill Clinton. Over the next three years they will focus on a relatively small group of people - perhaps between fifteen and thirty - considered primarily responsible for the worst atrocities and human rights violations.

Both the Special Court and the TRC are busy with public education programmes briefing people about their activities, but confusion and consternation persist over whether evidence brought before the TRC will be made available to the Court. The TRC chairman says 'definitely not, while the Special Court prosecutor says 'only if necessary.

There appears to be slightly more public support for the TRC although attitudes vary across the country. In the north, for example, support is more pronounced for the Special Court. …

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