Magazine article New Internationalist

VIEW FROM THE SOUTH: The Complexities of Justice

Magazine article New Internationalist

VIEW FROM THE SOUTH: The Complexities of Justice

Article excerpt

FOR me, some of the most unbearable images from Africa's recent fratricidal wars are of Sierra Leoneans whose limbs have been hacked off by that unfortunate country's vicious rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). It is heartbreaking to imagine the terror of the peaceful citizen, already harassed to the limit by a savage war whose cause they don't quite understand, when that war arrives at their door in the shape of a band of doped, brutalized kids dressed in women's wigs, armed with assault rifles and machetes. Imagine the moment of horrible knowledge when a machete is raised above the arm; imagine the splitting of bone, the crash of unspeakable pain, the sight of the severed arm and the rush of blood; imagine living with the pain and the horror after that, replaying it in your head day after day after day.

It is inconceivable that those responsible for such atrocities should escape punishment. Yet Foday Sankoh, leader of the RUF, and other actors in the Sierra Leonean civil war were granted an amnesty under the 1999 Lome Accord facilitated by West Africa's leaders. Exhausted by a seemingly unwinnable war in which they had intervened to defend Sierra Leone's elected government against the RUF and its allies - and having lost hundreds of their soldiers and spent millions of dollars they could ill afford - these leaders were desperate for a settlement. Foday Sankoh has recently been put on trial in Freetown because since that amnesty he has committed even more crimes against the Sierra Leonean people. If he had managed to restrain the demons inside him, Sankoh might have remained super-minister in charge of Sierra Leone's diamonds and other mineral resources, the position which he extracted at Lome as a price for ending his reign of terror. The RUF recently participated in the Sierra Leonean elections and their presidential candidate was one of Sankoh's senior lieutenants.

If a man like Sankoh could be rewarded for savagely terrorizing his fellow citizens with a senior position in government, if the party he led and his lieutenants can be allowed to compete in an election, how are we ever to root out the culture of impunity in Africa? But if the only alternative to rewarding savagery is even more savagery, can there be any doubt where the rational choice lies?

Recently, many people around the world were shocked when Wouter Basson, apartheid's Dr Death who, on behalf of the army, conducted live experiments to find painful ways to kill black people, was acquitted by a South African court of the numerous crimes he'd been charged with. That acquittal brought back another painful memory, of apartheid-era President John Vorster, who among other things presided over the massacre of Soweto's schoolchildren, successfully defying both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the South African courts. …

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