Magazine article UN Chronicle

Powerful Enough to Bring Justice: Setting Up the Special Court for Sierra Leone

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Powerful Enough to Bring Justice: Setting Up the Special Court for Sierra Leone

Article excerpt

War in Sierra Leone broke out in 1992 and ended with an uneasy peace in 2002. Over that terrible decade, some 75,000 civilians are believed to have been killed and half a million made refugees. Atrocities, in some respects unique in their grotesquery, have been reported: chopping off the hands of civilians who had cast electoral votes, kidnapping children for use as gunmen or sex slaves; butchering prisoners; and so on. It is a poignant irony that these things should happen where the world's first humanitarian mission took place--in Freetown, where the British navy in the nineteenth century set free the slaves.

On 12 June 2000, the President of Sierra Leone asked the United Nations to set up a court powerful enough to bring justice to his country. The Security Council responded in August with resolution 1315 (2000), declaring that the situation in Sierra Leone constituted a threat to international peace and requesting Secretary-General Kofi Annan to negotiate an agreement with the Government to set up an independent Special Court, as well as recommending that its jurisdiction should include crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, and crimes under Sierra Leonean law committed within the territory. There was no precedent for such a body; Nuremberg had been a military tribunal run by the four victorious powers, and the tribunals dealing with war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda had not been set up through any agreement with the countries concerned.

The Special Court Agreement was signed by the Government and the United Nations in January 2002 and ratified by the parliament of Sierra Leone in March 2002. The Statute of the Special Court, which forms part or the Agreement, provides that the Court shall "prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility" for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996 (the date of the Abidjan Peace Accord, which unsuccessfully offered an amnesty to rebel combatants). These crimes include:

* Crimes against humanity, i.e., murders, rapes, torture and other inhumane acts if committed systematically against civilians.

* War crimes, including violations of the Geneva Conventions and acts of terrorism and maltreatment of prisoners committed in the course of an armed conflict.

* Other serious violations of international humanitarian law, such as intentionally directing attacks against civilians, attacks against humanitarian or peacekeeping personnel, and enlisting children under 15 into armed forces or groups.

* Certain crimes under Sierra Leonean law, such as sexual violence against children and malicious damage to property.

The Court comprises five appeal judges, headed by the President, and a trial chamber of three judges. Two trial chamber judges and three appeal judges are appointed by the United Nations, and the others by the Government. The Prosecutor is appointed by the Secretary-General, but acts independently as a separate organ of the Special Court. The Registrar is also appointed by the Secretary-General and is a staff member of the United Nations. The Offices of the Prosecutor and Registrar are assisted by local lawyers and administrative staff, as well as by experienced international officials and counsel.

The Prosecutor may only indict those whom he alleges "bear the greatest responsibility" for those crimes listed in the Statute of the Court. The Special Court has jurisdiction to try them wherever they may reside at the time of their indictment and irrespective of their nationality or political affiliation. It takes precedence over Sierra Leone courts and may thus take over the prosecution of persons already in jail. The Prosecutor cannot, however, indict a person who was under 15 years of age at the time of the alleged crime. Arrested defendants may apply for bail and are entitled to counsel of their choice or to defend themselves, lf they are too poor to retain counsel, the Court itself is under a duty to provide adequate professional legal assistance free of charge. …

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