Reconciliation, Justice and Democracy in Sierra Leone: A Road to Lasting Peace?

Organized by the Swedish Development Forum, FUF, in collaboration with The Nordic Africa Institute, 28 October 2008

Mats Utas introduced the subject of the evening by giving a background of the war and post-war climate in Sierra Leone.

Tim Kelsall, the main speaker of the seminar, continued by setting out his topic of the evening, which was the Truth and Reconciliation Comission (TRC), the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and how they both are initiatives of what is called transitional justice.

Kelsall started out by putting forward the following definition of transitional justice: “The conception of justice associated with periods of political change, characterized by legal responses to confront the wrongdoings of repressive predecessor regimes (or wrongs committed during a period of violent conflict)”.

Kelsall went on to discuss some of the concerns regarding transitional justice and whether it is culturally appropriate. One question was whether mainstream transitional justice initiatives can be culturally applicable to the societies in which they are conducted?

To lay the foundation of the discussion, Kelsall continued by explaining the basics of the TRC and SCSL:

The first steps to the TRC were taken after the 1999 peace agreement. The commission was mandated to “create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone; to address the problem of impunity; to respond to the needs of victims; to promote healing and reconciliation; and to prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered”.

By the year 2000, the peace agreement had been violated and president Kabbah turned to the United Nations Secretary General requesting a court “powerful enough to bring justice to his country”. The court was set up and its main task was to 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 SCSL has up until today indicted 13 people from different factions, such as the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council) and the CDF (Civil Defense Forces).

Kelsall then introduced two main cultural problems that have affected the transitional justice initiatives in Sierra Leone:
– Sierra Leonians prefer not to bring traumatic events in the past to life by speaking of them. This issue has been discussed in particular by Shaw and Stovel.
– There is a strong believe in magic. The people who control the power of magic medicines have great charismatic and actual power.

Kelsall went on to focus on the work of the TRC. The commission started holding public hearings in different cities, and people were encouraged to go to the meetings and talk about the atrocities they had been subject to. The TRC’s view was that by opening the wounds and speaking freely about the suffering from war, people could start their healing process. In reality, however, the people who went through the TRC hearings were emotionally detached and their accounts were factually thin. Perpetrators, on the other hand, tended to give limited accounts in which they did not provide any details of the atrocities committed and also failed to accept individual responsibility for the trauma of the victims. Kelsall stated that the reasons for the victims´ reactions may be freight of reprisals and the strong tradition of social forgetting. The perpetrator’s behaviour may be explained by the simultaneous work by the SCSL which may have made them wary of incriminating themselves. In Kelsall’s view, the TRC could be improved inter alia by conducting local research prior to the commission hearings.

The discussion then focused on the work of the SCSL. To illustrate the failures of the court to adjust to the cultural context, Kelsall chose to discuss the trial of the CDF leader Allieu Kondewa, in which mystical powers played an important role.

Kondewa was the High Priest of the CDF. The movement had a strong fighting force and the prosecution argued that Kondewa was responsible for the crimes committed by the force because he ”prepared the fighters by purporting to protect them against bullets by means of cultish rituals”. It was claimed that Kondewa was capable of exerting effective control over the CDF forces because he had the ability to make them bullet-proof. The defence, on its side, argued that the rituals included that harming or killing civilians would mean loosing the immunity to bullets. Based on this taboo, the defence claimed that Kondewa had taken precautions to prevent the CDF forces from committing crimes. The SCSL found the evidence inconclusive and Kondewa was found not guilty. Kelsall disagrees with the court’s finding and argues that Kondewa could have prevented the CDF from committing the crimes. In Kelsall’s view, the court pointed out at least two clear occasions where Kondewa had had this opportunity. Kelsall finally noted that the court found Kondewa guilty of enlisting child soldiers.

In conclusion, Kelsall argued that it is not reasonable to assume that one single model fits all cases. Furthermore, he stated that to get the highest return on transitional justice initiatives the international community needs to focus more on the cultural applicability.

Maja Lidholm
Stockholm, 4/11 2008

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