Going Forward With Sierra Leone's War Crimes Tribunal

By: James W. Harris

The Perspective

August 3, 2001

The idea of setting up a war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, similar to the ones in Rwanda and other places, is really not new, as it has been floating around for quite some time now. But for obvious reasons, the country's brutal so-called Revolutionary United Front (RUF) seems to be the only group there that would not want to see it come to reality.

Considering the "horrendous" crimes, like chopping off the limbs of living human beings, that have occurred in that country at least since1996, all efforts must be made by the UN and all peoples of "conscience", to ensure that justice prevails in each and every case tried by the court. Moreover, these kinds of heinous crimes certainly deserve immediate world attention and public outcry.

Can you imagine the kind of pain and suffering that the victims of "alleged" RUF amputation are enduring right now? I can! No one that has committed such grueling crimes should be able to get away scotch free.

And for those who would readily stand in the way of establishing such a tribunal in Sierra Leone, I say simply, "hard luck", because the need of the public to know the truth about what has actually happened in Sierra Leone during the recent civil war there, by far exceeds the personal interests of "alleged" suspects.

Those who think that the Special Court would lead to some sort of "witch-hunting", they should immediately calm their fears as such a court that has been endorsed by the UN, has proven in recent times to be fair and transparent in the administration of justice.

Since the UN announced recently that it would support the setting up of Sierra Leone's war crime tribunal, some people have apparently become uncomfortable and "jittery". Remarked RUF spokesman, Gibril Massaquoi, in an interview about a week ago with the Voice of America (VOA): "The United Nations need to sit down with the RUF to explain exactlywhy such a court should be set up." Well, doesn't he know why? Where has he been all these years when his fellow countrymen, women and children, were treated so savagely just because of someone else's greed for power?

Alright, Mr. Massaquoi, since you pretend not to know why "such a court should be set up", here is the main reason - to ultimately get to the bottom of the truth as to why, and who, ordered the deliberate and inhumane acts of dismembering (hacking off the ears, legs, arms, etc.) of hundreds of ordinary Sierra Leoneons. It is clear as daylight that something terrible has happened in that country, especially since the formation of the RUF. All one has to do is to look around places like Freetown.

Yet, others have begun to express their concerns about the "timing" of the establishment of this court. I will be the first to admit that their concerns could be justified. But when actually is the right time to undertake a task so important as this before the nation could begin to heal its wounds? Because, frankly, people that are currently opposed to the establishment of the court, would always find another excuse to prevent it from being seated in the first place. This kind of delay tactics just wouldn't work; no, not this time!

Suggestions from some quarters that the RUF could abruptly pull out of the country's ongoing disarmament and peace process, as the result of the expected prosecution of Sierra Leone's war crimes is rather unfortunate. Members of the rebel groups and others that are closely associated with them should have nothing to be afraid of, unless, of course, they have some "skeletons" in their very dark closets.

Even that, they would at least have the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law; something that their victims were not entitled to. No doubt, the outcome of cases that would be tried inevitably by the tribunal would have chilling effects and serious ramifications beyond Sierra Leone's immediate borders.

It has been "alleged" that Liberia's President Charles Taylor and others, as chief patrons of the RUF, have played a "big" role in destabilizing Sierra Leone and the entire West African region. But as to exactly what extend the Liberian President has personally been involved in that country, we'll never know until the tribunal begins its hearings in the not too distant future.

What we do know, though, is that there is an urgent need for ordinary Sierra Leoneans and Liberians to begin to "mend" fences as they are all innocent victims of Mr. Taylor's and Mr. Foday Sankoh's master-plan to seize power by force in their respective countries. And NOT for the good of their peoples, but to acquire personal wealth at their (peoples') expense.

But in taking that path, they seem to have forgotten one thing: That the world certainly was not the way that it used to be. As the Canadian International Cooperation Minister, Maria Minna, acknowledged recently during the announcement of her country's US$2.25 million donation toward the creation of Sierra Leone's war crimes tribunal: "The establishment of the special court will also send a powerful message, both in the country and internationally, that impunity will not be tolerated."

But most of all, the UN, Canada, and other contributors to this worthy cause, should resolve to see this to the very end. And those that are found guilty of bearing the greatest responsibilities for committing such barbarous crimes, like, rape, child abuse, mutilation, etc., must be punished severely by the court as a warning to others that you just can't wake up one morning and decide to kill or maim people because you want to be the president or head of state. In today's "civilized" world, one will have to face the dire consequences of such actions, especially so, when the people's needs are not met as promised.

While no one can deny that citizens do have the "legitimate" rights to challenge or even change their governments, it is, however, incumbent on each citizen to take "full responsibilities" for his or her actions. We witnessed this quite lately when, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was put to death by lethal injection, while the world anxiously waited and then watched, his execution. All along, he took "personal responsibility" for his actions, albeit his "cowardly" act and hatred and contempt for the government of the United States. Even he (McVeigh) was given the benefit of the US justice system, which he often tried to manipulate without success.

In the case of Sierra Leone, the tribunal should be given the ample opportunity to go ahead and do its work, and let the chips fall where they may. Without "malice and prejudice", the court should give Mr. Sankoh and his cohorts their day and let them "sensibly" explain what really happened. If they can't afford their own defense lawyers at this time, then the court must find a way to provide them. But the world cannot afford to sit idly in this new millennium, while a few "thugs" go on committing senseless murder. They must be stopped, by whatever means, for the good of humanity.

The ongoing "callous" (to use the word of Lieutenant General, Daniel Opande, commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone) attack on the country's civilian population, apparently by a splinter group of the RUF, makes the establishment of the court even more urgent. Those who are continuing to commit various atrocities in the region should also be brought to justice.

On the part of the Sierra Leoneon government, it definitely cannot turn a blind eye when its supporters are engaging in acts that are similarly gruesome, because it cannot have it both ways. President Tejan Kabbah should immediately condemn and discourage his allies, like, the Kamajors, from engaging in further violence.

The recent news from there that the Kamajors were haunting down a local journalist, named as one William Fewry, of the PROGRESS newspaper, is appalling. Mr. Kabbah and his government need to ensure that this kind of thing comes to an immediate end. It is the sacred responsibility of his government to protect all Sierra Leoneans, especially in a situation such as this.

If the Kamajors or anyone else were dissatisfied with the way a certain story was written about them, then let them take the writer to court ­ that is where the matter belongs. But by chasing Mr. Fewry to the point of endangering his life just because they didn't like his article is going way too far. No one should be allowed to take the law into his or her own hands, not even the Kamajors. And the government should not encourage this kind of behavior by remaining silent, especially at this time, when it is asking the international community for help in rebuilding the country. Mr. Kabbah should act now and spare his country's reputation from being further tarnished. This is what "leadership" is all about.

As long as his government does its part in trying to keep the country peaceful by applying the rule of law, it could then appeal to the international community to help it keep the remnants of the dreaded RUF there in check. Because the "will of the people" to live in peace without harassment from their fellow countrymen or even the government, is more than the "fire-power" coming out of the barrels of those guns. Throughout history, the "people" have always triumphed over injustice. Sierra Leone shouldn't be any different!

Meanwhile, we highly commend all those that have contributed toward the establishment of Sierra Leone's war crimes tribunal so far, because it is a worthwhile cause in finally bringing justice to that part of the world. A way must also be found to help as many victims as humanly possible in order to ease their pain and rebuild their "shattered" lives. Their general welfare should be the collective responsibility of the whole society, bearing in mind that they have already gone through a lot and paid a "heavy" price. In the end, good must triumph over evil in Sierra Leone no matter what.

Click the links before for related articles:
MCDL Wants Liberia Included in War Crimes Tribunal on Sierra Leone's
Will Taylor Join Sankoh Before the Tribunal?
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Wants Taylor Answer Charges Before Tribunal
ALJA Asks UN To Set Up War Crimes Tribunal For Liberia
"Blessed" Sierra Leone, Cursed Liberia

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