Which Justice? What Justice? Who’s Justice?

by Saskia Nauenberg, United States of America

The story of Sierra Leone’s rebel leader Issa Sesay left many of us conflicted: Was it fair? What sentence should he have received? Does the Special Court of Sierra Leone positively contribute to peace-building efforts in Sierra Leone? Will it help deter future crimes around the world? While lawyers make arguments one-way or the other, opinions are polarized both in Sierra Leone and the international community; many wonder if a single moral answer is within reach. So I present this dilemma to you in the blogger community by sharing a sample of some of the issues our symposium is addressing. These questions emerged on Monday after watching the film “War Don Don” and meeting with prosecutor Brenda Hollis. Issa Sesay was recruited to the RUF rebel movement as a teenager. He was not one of the main conspirators behind the conflict (Charles Taylor or Foday Sankoh). As the film described, he was enlisted under false pretenses and hopeless circumstances. Once a part of the RUF, he argued he would have been shot and killed if he tried to leave. Associates explained he was a good fighter, and rose in the ranks. Eventually he became a battlefield commander. The prosecution at the Special Court argued that under his orders and authority, violence raged throughout Sierra Leone. Mass atrocities were committed: thousands suffered the amputation of one or more limbs, tens of thousands were murdered, women and girls were raped, captured, and taken as sex slaves, and child soldiers were abducted. My description can’t adequately convey the horrors of the civil war. However, the defense claimed that Issa wasn’t linked to all these crimes. They contended that Issa’s convictions were based on crimes that had occurred by different people in different areas. As a commander, what responsibility does Issa bear?

In 2000, Foday Sankoh and 400 RUF soldiers were captured and arrested. 29-year- old Issa was elected as the interim leader by West African presidents. In this new role, Issa went against the will of the RUF and its other leaders, to end the Sierra Leone conflict and disarm the rebel movement. He worked with UN commander Daniel Opande, who later said he was “like a son”. Issa helped end the war without assuring his own amnesty, and was later picked up by the Special Court and tried for war crimes. However the film explained “a lot of people

[in Sierra Leone] see Issa as a savior”. A radio program, covering the Special Court posed the question: “what kind of message does this send to other warlords?” Issa participated in peace, and got the longest sentence from the court: 52 years. The issue is further complicated when we consider how widespread the responsibility for violence was. In order to convict Issa Sesay and other leaders of the conflict, former soldiers were paid to give testimony. These individuals had committed their own atrocities, but were not held accountable due to the court’s limited mandate.

Instead they were given generous compensation for their witness testimony and sometimes relocated to first world countries. Should these war criminals be able to profit from the circumstances? The United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone spent more than $200 million on the Special Court. Meanwhile, the film concluded with statistics showing that Sierra Leone is the third poorest country in the world. After 11 years of war many people want food, clean water, health care, schools, and basic employment. International funding is complex, and money donated for one thing can’t just be used for another, but it’s important to bear in mind that millions of dollars were spent on a court that sentenced 9 people (13 were indicted but 3 died). This makes each case ever more important. Did the Special Court for Sierra Leone bring justice? What kind of justice? And justice for whom?

While I can’t answer all these questions, I believe it’s important to provoke this type of debate. One thing is for sure: IPSI participants who go on to be leaders in the field of post- conflict transitions will be challenged to reconsider and redefine what we mean when we talk about “justice”.

2017-09-01T16:46:14+00:00