Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
International criminal tribunals have come to occupy prominent roles in ensuring accountability for serious crimes in recent years. The International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) set up in the 1990s were the precursors of the hybrid or mixed tribunals like the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in the 2000s. Although constituted in different ways, these tribunals have always had one thing in common – to prosecute high level officials for mass atrocities irrespective of the positions they held at the time of the commission of the crimes. However, increasingly these tribunals have also become more concerned about the visibility of their work, and about embarking on outreach activities to bring local and affected communities closer to the judicial process even when proceedings are taking place thousands of kilometres away. (Read the full analysis here or download it below)
In the case of the SCSL, which was set up by an agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations to prosecute people bearing the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the country’s bloody civil conflict, the prosecutor of the Court went after Charles Taylor, who was then the sitting head of state in neighbouring Liberia. The prosecutor alleges that Taylor ‘bears the greatest responsibility’ for the serious crimes committed in Sierra Leone by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels – a group that waged a bloody war from 1991–2002. As the RUF fought for political power in Sierra Leone, atrocious crimes – including hacking off the arms and limbs of civilians, rape, destruction of civilian property, forced labour and murder – became their trademark.
It is alleged that Taylor was involved in a joint criminal enterprise with RUF, aimed at gaining political control of Sierra Leone and controlling the country’s vast diamond resources – and that a campaign of terror lay at the foundation of this enterprise.
According to the prosecutors, the campaign saw thousands of civilians murdered and raped, many others had their arms and limbs crudely amputated, some were forced to labour in the diamond fields and hundreds of children were coerced into combat activities. Prosecutors say that Taylor exercised control over rebel forces in Sierra Leone: he knew or had reason to know that these crimes were being committed but failed to prevent their commission or punish RUF rebels who were his subordinates for committing these crimes.
Blood diamonds have taken centre stage in Taylor’s trial as several witnesses have spoken about how Sierra Leonean rebel commanders travelled to Liberia and handed huge numbers of diamonds to Taylor, who in return gave them arms and ammunition, which were used to commit atrocities in Sierra Leone. The focus on blood diamonds in this trial has seen several witness testify in The Hague, including former rebel commanders in Sierra Leone and Liberia who claim to have been part of the network supplying diamonds to Taylor, as well as celebrities such as Supermodel Naomi Campbell, who prosecutors say received blood diamonds from Taylor after they both attended a dinner that was hosted by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1997. Throughout his trial, Taylor has maintained his innocence.
Taylor himself waged a bloody war to gain control of Liberia. After years of bloodshed, he eventually won democratic elections in August 1997 and served as Liberia’s 22nd President. However, five years later, as rebel forces advanced into Liberia’s capital Monrovia with the aim of removing him from power and with a SCSL indictment hanging over his head, Taylor resigned as president and sought asylum in Nigeria. After sustained advocacy by civil society organisations and an official request from Liberia’s newly-elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleef, Taylor was transferred to the custody of the SCSL in March 2006 to face charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international law allegedly committed in Sierra Leone. Due to concerns about security in the West African sub-region, Taylor’s trial was transferred to The Hague in the Netherlands, where he would be tried before SCSL judges. After several delays, the former Liberian president’s trial commenced in January 2008, with prosecutors calling 94 witnesses to testify against him, some of whom had been part of Taylor’s government in Liberia, including his former Vice-President Moses Blah.
During its lifespan, the SCSL has indicted thirteen people from the various factions involved in the Sierra Leone conflict. RUF leader Foday Sankoh died in the custody of the court before his trial commenced, while key RUF commander Sam Bockarie, aka Mosquito, died in Liberia, allegedly executed on the orders of Taylor. The military junta leader Johnny Paul Koroma remains at large. Chief Sam Hinga Norman, a former government minister and coordinator of a pro-government militia, the Civil Defence Forces, also died in the custody of the court after his trial had been concluded but before judgment was delivered in his case. All those who have actually been prosecuted, with the exception of Norman, have been convicted and are now serving jail terms in a Rwandan jail. As for Taylor, the evidence phase of his trial came to a close in March 2011 and the judges were expected to deliver their verdict as this journal was going to print.
Taylor’s transfer to The Hague brought new challenges for the SCSL not only in terms of substantial extra costs for an already financially-burdened court, but also in terms of additional responsibility for outreach to local populations in Sierra Leone and Liberia about a trial that was going to take place very far away. The phrase ‘justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done’ had already been made manifest when the SCSL became the first tribunal to develop a separate section specifically for outreach. Other tribunals, including the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC), have subsequently copied the SCSL’s lead by developing effective outreach programmes. In the SCSL’s sixth annual report in 2009, the Court describes the central objective of its outreach section as being to bring ‘the work of the court to the public’. And during the conduct of its other cases in Sierra Leone, the SCSL operated an innovative and very successful outreach programme, which did ensure that its work reached communities across the country, including victims groups, market women, the police and the army, academic institutions and civil society organisations.
When Taylor was apprehended and subsequently transferred to The Hague, the Court’s outreach efforts shifted substantially. While Taylor’s arrest brought renewed interest and international attention to the work of the SCSL, his subsequent transfer to The Hague created new challenges for the Court’s outreach efforts. Bearing in mind the need to keep the local population informed of the daily happenings of the case, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1688, which directed the Court ‘to make the trial proceedings accessible to the people of the sub-region’. Therefore, the Court sought innovative ways to conduct effective outreach in both Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Upon Taylor’s arrest in 2006, the Court’s outreach staff made a trip to Liberia, where they gathered information on the perceptions held by Liberians about the Court. Members of Liberian civil society were made to travel to Sierra Leone where they interacted with their Sierra Leonean counterparts in a seminar to share their experiences. The Court also opened an Outreach Secretariat in Liberia with headquarters in Monrovia. When the trial was set to commence in June 2007 (before it was subsequently postponed due to logistical constraints faced by the defence), the Court attempted to stream the proceedings live in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Television sets were displayed in various parts of both countries so that the public could see Taylor make his first court appearance in The Hague and listen to both the prosecution and the defence counsels make their opening statements.
But members of the public were disappointed on two fronts. Firstly, they did not see Taylor as he refused to show up in court. And secondly, the much anticipated live streaming of the proceedings did not work due to technical failures faced by the Court. The SCSL eventually abandoned its efforts to stream the proceedings live in public and instead only showed them live within the premises of the SCSL, although members of the public were encouraged to come to the courthouse to watch. While members of various institutions in Sierra Leone have paid official visits to the SCSL premises and been able to sit and watch the live stream from The Hague, the Court failed to develop an effective strategy to bring ordinary Sierra Leoneans into the court room to view the proceedings. A few media practitioners used to visit the Court to watch important proceedings but gradually, their visits also ceased. Most Sierra Leoneans found it difficult to leave their daily chores to go to the SCSL’s premises. Armed UN personnel in front of the Court’s barbed wire fence added to the cumbersome security procedures, which ordinary visitors had to go through in order to gain access to the Court’s premises, and gave the impression that ordinary people were not really welcome inside the Court.
The Court needed to find innovative ways to encourage more people to watch the proceedings but this did not happen. For example, many people did not know that with high speed internet (although this is unavailable in most parts of Sierra Leone), they could sit in their homes or offices and visit the Court’s website, where they would be a click away from watching the live proceedings on their computers. Another institution that could have played an important role in showing live proceedings of the trial was the country’s national television network. When Kenyan politicians recently made appearances at the ICC in The Hague, most television networks in Kenya dedicated hours to showing the proceedings live. Similar efforts were markedly absent in Sierra Leone.
The situation in Liberia, where the SCSL faced even bigger challenges in terms of running an effective outreach programme, was no better. Outreach staff visited Liberia and held town hall style meetings and showed recorded videos of the proceedings around the country. The SCSL also facilitated trips to The Hague for members of civil society from Sierra Leone and Liberia, who would then go back to their communities and give updates on the trial. However, Liberians complained that none of these activities were regular or sufficient enough to keep them engaged in the process.
Other organisations undertook programmes to complement the outreach efforts of the SCSL, including the BBC World Service Trust and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI). The BBC trained and financed a journalist from Sierra Leone and one from Liberia to cover the proceedings in The Hague and send short radio reports to West Africa on a daily basis. Meanwhile, throughout the trial, OSJI has maintained a website (www.charlestaylortrial.org) that produces daily summaries and analysis of the proceedings for use by the general public. Sierra Leonean and Liberian journalists have often relied on this website to publish news about the trial. The website has also provided a forum for people to comment on the proceedings, which has fostered lively debates across West Africa.
However, interest in the Taylor trial has never been consistent – unsurprisingly considering it is taking place so far away from those most directly affected. Therefore, it is noteworthy that in recent months, with the trial phase of the case concluded and with the judges locked in deliberations for a final verdict, the Chief Prosecutor of the Court made a tour of various communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where she talked with local people and spoke to government officials about the conduct of the trial. The prosecutor claimed that this tour was an attempt to account to the people for whom she was providing services, mainly the victims and affected communities. Subsequently, the Registrar of the Court made similar trips to both countries in an effort to keep local people engaged with the work of the Court. These outreach efforts are particularly important in building momentum around, and creating a general awareness about, the final verdict, which was due to be delivered as this journal went to print. Outreach efforts after the verdict is delivered will also be critical to explain the judgment to the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia and to boost the credibility of the process and its legacy for the West African sub-region.
The SCSL has worked hard to make the trial visible to the public but it has faced numerous challenges. The Court’s budget – financed mainly from voluntary contributions by UN member states – has never made provision for outreach. Therefore, the outreach section has had to raise its own funds. Despite this, outreach personnel have still managed to reach a large audience – explaining the legal mandate of the Court to punish a small group of perpetrators, as well as disseminating information about the Court’s responsibility to promote respect for the rule of law in West Africa. With its limited funding and its mainly Sierra Leonean staff, the outreach section of the SCSL has done more than its predecessors – the ICTY and ICTR – to disseminate information and maintain awareness about the proceedings of the Court. Ideally, much more could have been done but the SCSL has shown future Tribunals how important outreach is and – through both its successes and its failures – provided lessons that those Tribunals must learn from.