As the Special Court for Sierra Leone wraps up cases against accused war criminals, a conference will be held later this week in Freetown to assess the Court's work and lasting legacy. The conference is part of a larger international effort to look at how the court has helped to bring peace and establish the rule of law for the people of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the region as a whole.
The Special Court was set up by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations in 2002, after a decade of violent conflict claimed over 50,000 lives and devastated countless more. The Court was tasked with trying those individuals who bore the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law.
Since then, 13 individuals have been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations.
In the court's most high-profile case, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was found guilty in April 2012 of participating in the planning, and aiding and abetting, of crimes committed by rebel forces in Sierra Leone. Once Taylor's appeal is resolved, the court will conclude its judicial work - but its decisions, archives, prison, and courtroom will live on.
"The court has made a significant contribution to international jurisprudence and played a role in moving the focus of prosecutions for serious crimes back to the national plane," said David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, the organization hosting the conference. "Its legacy is rooted in recognizing victims' rights to justice, strengthening the rule of law, and fighting impunity in Sierra Leone."
The court was the first of its kind and can claim many precedents. It was the first international court established by agreement between the U.N. and a state in the territory where crimes were committed; the first to indict a sitting African head of state, Charles Taylor; the first 'hybrid court' where international and national judges and personnel worked together; the first international court to be funded solely on voluntary contributions from interested states; and the first to convict individuals for the recruitment and use of child soldiers and the crime of forced marriage.
Throughout its operations, the court has paid particular attention to the experiences of women and children in armed conflict. Children were singled out for some of the most brutal violations of human rights, including forced recruitment and physical and sexual violence. In thousands of cases, children as young as 10 years old were abducted from their homes and forced to join armed groups.
"[These trials] are an opportunity for us to know exactly what happened, and for people to be brought before the courts for their stories to be heard," said Claire Carlton-Hanciles, principal defender for the Special Court, in Freetown "This is the first time in the history of Sierra Leone we're really going to practice rule of law. This is not only for the law books, but for Sierra Leone to move on."
According to a September 2012 report by No Peace Without Justice, there is an overall positive feeling among people in both Sierra Leone and Liberia about the court and its work. "The general feeling is that, on the whole, the court has been successful in fulfilling its mandate, although there is still work to be done." While many victims consider justice to be a form of redress in itself, the number of individuals who have benefited from material compensation for the harms they suffered remains low.
The Freetown conference will bring together important stakeholders to discuss the court and its legacy -- senior officials of the government of Sierra Leone, paramount chiefs representing each district, state representatives, development agencies, former and current SCSL staff, other international criminal court and tribunal staff, and local and international civil society actors.
Topics will include the court's long-term legal obligations, like the protection of witnesses and the maintenance of archives that encompass many thousands of documents collected by the Court during its investigations and prosecutions.
"Above all, the court has helped to establish an authoritative record of the nature of the crimes that took place during the Civil War - who was responsible for them, what groups were targeted, and why," summed up Tolbert on the court's lasting impacts. "It has strengthened Sierra Leone's domestic legal system and encouraged Sierra Leoneans to have faith in their justice system."
The conference will be held in Freetown, Sierra Leone, February 6-7, 2013.