Orbiting in Space – Suspended Justice in Sierra Leone

Laura Martin joins JiC for this timely and critical examination of the over-relieance of legal, retributive modes of justice in Sierra Leone. Laura is a currently Ph.D candidate in the Centre for African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her research largely pertains to local transitional justice in Sierra Leone.  



In The Hague last month, the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) upheld the May 2012 ruling that Charles Taylor had in fact committed war crimes by aiding Sierra Leonean soldiers during the 11 year civil war (1991-2002). Many have praised the verdict as another victory on the war against impunity, ‘serving justice’ for the many victims of Sierra Leone. But the ruling is simply another example of how “serving justice” during transitions largely remains confined to a narrow, legal understanding of what justice means. Context and culture continue to be marginalized and, as a result, so too is justice.

Legal transitional justice predominantly stems from the 1990s when justice institutions manifested as ad hoc tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. They sought to prosecute criminal masterminds with international criminal law. Therefore, the notion of ”serving justice” was equated with due process and guilty convictions. However, these institutions were found to be slow, stagnant, expensive and, most importantly, disconnected. Critics often pointed to both their physical and psychological distance. As Makau Mutua writes in reference to Rwanda, the “tribunal [was] orbiting in space, suspended from political reality and removed from individual and national psyches,” demonstrating its lack of relevance or legitimacy in civil society.

In response, practitioners sought to renovate transitional justice tribunals to become what Beth Dougherty refers to as the “second generation,” incorporating aspects specific to local contexts. Transitional justice in Sierra Leone was the pinnacle product of this evolution. The Special Court, located in Freetown, was designed as a legal hybrid institution where both international humanitarian law and national law served as the backbone of justice, as well as employing both international and Sierra Leonean judges and lawyers. Established in 2002, its purpose was to charge individuals who “bore the greatest responsibility” for crimes committed in Sierra Leone from November 1996 onward. This resulted in the indictment of 23 men, primarily key war architects and top commanders. Of these individuals, 9 are currently serving jail sentences; 3, including top rebel leaders Sam Hinga Norman, Foday Sankoh, and Sam Bockarie died during proceedings; Johnny Paul Koroma, head of state during the AFRC government from 1997-98 remains a fugitive (although is believed to be dead); and the remaining served lesser (or, in some instances, no) sentences for cases of contempt including witness intimidation and witness tampering.

Charles Taylor (Photo: Jerry Lampen / Reuters)

Charles Taylor (Photo: Jerry Lampen / Reuters)

International legal scholars have widely hailed the Court as a success. Last year, the UN Security Council stated the SCSL had succeeded in contributing to international criminal justice-particularly in relation to forced marriage, sexual violence, sexual slavery and the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The Court was also said to have strengthened stability in West Africa by “bringing an end to impunity.” The May 2012 Charles Taylor conviction and its recent reaffirmation have further served as evidence that “justice has been done.” However, what did this mean in Sierra Leone and, more importantly, for its citizens?

The short answer is: not a lot. To begin with, the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans reside in rural areas disconnected from state and legal institutions. The Court, located in the coastal city of Freetown, hidden behind barricaded walls and barbed wire fences rendered it neither physically visible or nor accessible. In addition, a large portion of the population is illiterate. Hence, legal rhetoric was in many was not understood or of interest. Even with press outlets there was a strong disconnect. As Lansana Gberie observed, “[T]he Court appears aloof from the general population…[Their] Public Information Unit…has been perceived as having little engagement with the local media…and has seemed more concerned communicating with foreign press.”

In my own communication with Sierra Leoneans, I found they were generally indifferent to the Court. They had not heard much about it or saw it being of little relevance to them. Some had heard of Charles Taylor, some knew about his verdict, but only those in the legal sphere seemed to really care. In speaking to one victim in Eastern Sierra Leone, he told me: ‘I heard about it, but I do not see it,’ indicating that neither geographical locale nor domestic legality equates to the physical or mental visibility of justice. Rather, the Court was orbiting in a narrow, confined sphere removed from civil society. This Court embodied what Paul Gready refers to as ‘distanced’ justice systems that lack domestic participation, undermine existing norms and institutions and are often alien to society at large. As result, such judicial systems are frequently referred to as producing ‘white man’s justice’- serving justice through the lens of those by whom it was established, rather than those it was established for.

People watch the Taylor verdict at the SCSL in Freetown, Sierra Leone (Photo: AP)

People watch the Taylor verdict at the SCSL in Freetown, Sierra Leone (Photo: AP)

Systems of transitional justice are most often institutionalized upon the external architect’s own culturally nuanced understandings of these concepts, thereby marginalizing locality. Instead of the ‘local’ acting as a peripheral point, it should be, as argued by Shaw and Waldorf, “’place-based’ – where the ‘local’ is shifted to the centre from which the rest of the world is viewed,” This is especially relevant in the case of domestic conflict. The response to a civil war requires civil input and ownership, reflecting the beliefs and understandings of its participants, both victims and perpetrators. Sierra Leoneans have their own means of forgoing past atrocities. In discussion with one Sierra Leonean, justice was familiar – it was a face-to-face conversation in which a perpetrator issues an apology, particularly in the context of a culturally relevant ritual. If the ‘third generation’ is to “serve justice” in any meaningful sense, its orbited suspension needs to be reeled in to better address ‘place-based,’ culturally contextualized issues in order to end both a culture of impunity and the impunity of culture.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Special Court for SIerra Leone (SCSL), Transitional Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Orbiting in Space – Suspended Justice in Sierra Leone

  1. Alison Smith says:

    This article does not square with what we found Sierra Leoneans and Liberians felt about the Special Court during a survey conducted in 2012, the results of which are available from http://www.npwj.org/node/5599, which show that Sierra Leoneans and Liberians overwhelmingly support the SCSL and believe it has fulfilled its mandate, namely to prosecute the people responsible for crimes and to help strengthen the rule of law. Yes, the SCSL had its challenges – including reaching remote areas – and it is also true that not everyone supported or supports the Court and its work. But this article presents only one side of a multifaceted argument and situation: for example, it leaves out any reference to or analysis of other transitional justice initiatives that also took place in Sierra Leone, chief among them the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, plus other initiatives that took place on a more localised level. The SCSL was never intended to be “The Justice for Sierra Leone”, only a part of the picture that would help ensure there was not impunity for the crimes committed there.

  2. Hannah Dunphy says:

    To echo Alison here: you might be interested in our recent project, “Seeds of Justice,” in which Sierra Leoneans reflect on the impact of the SCSL: http://ictj.org/news/seeds-of-justice. It is part of larger project we conducted to engage the legacy of the SCSL (in fact, as a part of that effort, Alison has some important reflection in an interview we conducted with her: (http://scsl-legacy.ictj.org/)

  3. Fanny says:

    I would like to read your analysis about the ECCC…

  4. Rafael says:

    This is by far one of he worst articles I’ve ever read from a journalistic and legal perspective.

    The author attempts to argue that the SCSL is disconnected from the people of Sierra Leone and her support for this is a reference to an article written by Lansana Gberie in 2003 and to a book written by Paul Gready in 2005. The SCSL was hardly operational back then. I fail to see how the author can support her point of view that the SCSL today has little or no impact in the country or over the citizens of Sierra Leone on the basis of articles that were written so long ago. This hardly offers support for the author’s claim that the Taylor Judgment and Appeal Judgment, as well as the other Judgments of the SCSL, have had little to no impact in Sierra Leone. Moreover, the author’s argument is strongly contradicted by contemporary surveys carried out by serious members of civil society (see comments above) that show the support the SCSL receives from people in Sierra Leone and their perceptions of the SCSL’s work.

    The author also says that the Court is seen as “white man’s justice” but her reference is to a broken link where the reader is unable to attest the source of this information and the date it was provided.

    Apart from this, all we have is the author’s own interactions with Sierra Leoneans and the reader is left guessing as to how many Sierra Leoneans the author actually spoke to and when were these interviews conducted (not to mention the methodology of this line of research).

    I certainly hope that as a PhD candidate the author is capable of conducting better research for her thesis.

  5. hadson says:

    You are so correct why painting such a negative picture of the SCSL.I dont think you have done justice to this piece of writing, why so negative about the SCSL at least you would have done justice to create a balance of critic . You still lack the correct perception of transitional justice in Sierra Leone , Please contact me as i doing my own research on TBA in Sierra Leone but not to glorify the TBA against other TJ methods .

  6. Pingback: 2013: שנת ההנגאובר של האג – יוני אשפר | Yoni Eshpar

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