Lagos — Executive Director, Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), Mr. James A. Goldston at the weekend, urged the United Nations (UN) to consider the cost to be incured in having former Liberian President Charles Taylor's trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, relocated from Sierra Leone to the International Court at The Hague.
The group warned that the international community must shoulder the increased financial costs and address the likely negative impact for Taylor's victims.
The warning, which is coming against the UN Security Council's expected consideration of a resolution to relocate the trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone from Freetown to The Hague which is hinged on concerns based on the potential impact of the trial on security and peace in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
It would be recalled that the legal action launched in 2004 in Nigeria's courts by the Justice Initiative and the Lagos-based law firm Aluko and Oyebode helped set in motion the recent delivery of Charles Taylor to the SCSL.
The suit, seeking to end Taylor's asylum in Nigeria, was filed on behalf of two Nigerian citizens who suffered amputations at the hands of the Taylor-backed Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone.
The legal effort was supported by a coalition of NGOs across West Africa which advocated in many quarters for Taylor to be tried by the SCSL. Last November a Nigerian high court backed the victims' right to sue to overturn Taylor's asylum.
The ruling would have allowed the plaintiffs to invoke Nigerian legislation barring asylum for war criminals to challenge the decision to harbor Taylor. Hearings were pending at the time Taylor was handed over.
However, Goldston in calling on the UN to consider the extra-costs said, "moving the trial from Freetown to The Hague will impose considerable burdens on victims and witnesses, and increase the challenge of ensuring broad public engagement in Taylor's trial". He stated that "the Security Council must do everything in its power to overcome these costs. re they occurred.
Among other benefits, this has permitted public interaction with the Court and its officials, facilitated access for victims and witnesses, and directly confronted impunity in West Africa. Any relocation of the trial must ensure that the positive message of prosecution is not undermined by its removal from the Mano River region".
Collaborating Goldston's position, Justice Initiative's Senior Legal Officer for Africa, Mr. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, said "the victims of Taylor's crimes are the Special Court's primary constituency".
Odinkalu noted that "the Security Council must ensure that a decision to move the trial does not overlook their interests as witnesses, participants, and advocates."
According to him, "the extra costs of holding Taylor's trial in The Hague would include: the need to relocate judges, prosecutors and court staff; the need to transport witnesses and victims, many of whom are physically disabled and psychologically traumatized; the impossibility for a significant number of Sierra Leoneans to be physically present in the courtroom; the diluted impact of the trial on political leaders and the general public in West Africa; the difficulty for Mano River Union media to cover the proceedings; and the risk that the move might delay and/or prolong the trial".
It is therefore, essential that if the trial is relocated, the Security Council should plan for, and minimise, these costs by identifying and providing extra financial resources, above and beyond the existing Special Court budget, from United Nations assessed funds to pay for these needs. The move to The Hague should not be paid for with voluntary contributions from UN member states.
Specifically, the group added that the Security Council should accept responsibility for funding or facilitating the following measures:
- Broadcasting the trial throughout West Africa, including on television, radio, the internet, and on video disk. The scarcity of electricity and appropriate equipment in much of the region will require additional investments in facilities and technology. Funding should also be made available to ensure presence of Sierra Leonean and Liberian media at The Hague.
- Providing fast-tracked visa applications, transportation, and accommodation in The Hague, to allow witnesses and victims to attend the trial.
- Arranging to meet the special needs of victims and witnesses attending the trial who are without limbs, otherwise physically disabled, and/or in need of psychological support services.
- Maintaining the Court's expeditious pace, so the move to The Hague does not compromise the defendant's right to speedy trial or the victims' interest in seeing justice as promptly as possible.
Trials held at the Special Court for Sierra Leone are intended to send a clear message to the people of West Africa and beyond that anyone who commits mass crimes will be held legally accountable. Any relocation of the trial of Charles Taylor must ensure that this positive legacy of the judicial process for the peoples of the region is preserved.