ICTJ: SCSL Holds Valuable Lessons for International Justice

As the work of the Special Court for Sierra Leone draws to a close, we take stock of the historic milestones it has passed since its creation in advancing transitional justice.

When the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was established in 2002, it represented hope for the millions of Sierra Leoneans who had endured 11 years of fear, brutality, and constant warfare. The SCSL offered the chance for the country to heal by prosecuting those who are most responsible for atrocities, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor, the first sitting African head of state to be indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The SCSL built on the efforts of previous international tribunals to form a new hybrid model of international criminal justice and provide great potential for future trials. With the court rested the hope that the flaws in past international tribunals could be corrected, thus advancing the state of international criminal justice while strengthening the Sierra Leone’s domestic legal system and encouraging Sierra Leoneans to have faith in their justice system.

In addition to its important judicial record and the measure of justice it brought for victims and affected communities, the Court has had a broad impact on Sierra Leone as a post-conflict society. While legacy goals were expressly stated in the SCSL’s mandate, the hopes of leaving an enduring and lasting legacy were high among Sierra Leoneans. The Court, above all, 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.

The Court’s robust and innovative outreach program has raised awareness about the trials and ongoing investigations. It also engaged local communities and civil society groups in a constructive debate about the work and activities of the Court, particularly through the Special Court Interactive Forum. The SCSL’s innovative outreach program, which focused on improving domestic understanding of the court’s activities, will serve as a model for future tribunals.

During its lifespan, the Court undertook significant capacity-building projects through its professional development program, helping to train and build the expertise of dozens of Sierra Leonean investigators, lawyers, and judges. Among its many accomplishments, the Court has initiated steps to create the first national witness protection unit in Sierra Leone, one of only a few witness protection systems in Africa.

Still, the impact of the Special Court extends well beyond the borders of Sierra Leone. Its judgments have reaffirmed important international legal norms, such as the prohibition on the conscription of child soldiers, condemnation of the crime of forced marriage, and the denial of immunity to sitting heads of state.

Finally, the Court leaves behind a strong physical legacy, in the form of the buildings and grounds where trials were held in Freetown. Discussions are now underway to determine how this space should be used to honor victims and contribute to the ongoing process of national healing.

In the coming months, the International Center for Transitional Justice will host two conferences, one in New York and the other in Freetown, to assess the legacy of the Special Court. We will bring together important stakeholders - Sierra Leone government representatives, civil society representatives, international policymakers, donors, former and current Court officials, and NGO representatives - to share the experiences of the Special Court, facilitating discussion on the lessons learned that may be transferable to other contexts. This is particularly important given the growing understanding that those responsible for massive human rights violations must be tried and punished for their crimes.

The conference will also raise awareness about the Court’s continuing legal obligations following the completion of its mandate, including the protection of witnesses and the maintenance of archives.

Since 2002, ICTJ has been fortunate to work on many transitional justice and peace-building projects in Sierra Leone, primarily those involving the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its reparations program, and, of course, the Special Court. We have provided technical advice to the Court since its inception, particularly on matters relating to its lasting impact on judicial institutions in the country and on the people of Sierra Leone.

ICTJ has also worked closely with civil society organizations on issues of accountability in Sierra Leone. Together, we helped to establish the Special Court Monitoring Program (now renamed CARL- the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law), an organization that specifically monitored and reported on links between the Special Court and Sierra Leone’s domestic justice sector. ICTJ also collaborated with Sierra Leonean civil society institutions, including the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, the Law Reform Initiative, and the Campaign for Good Governance on Transitional Justice issues.

ICTJ was instrumental in advising the government of Sierra Leone on the legislation that established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And once established, we provided technical assistance to the Commission throughout its lifespan. ICTJ was particularly instrumental in the design of the country’s reparations program, which was adopted by the Commission. We provided technical assistance to the national body tasked with implementing the reparations program and the National Commission for Social Action, as well as providing capacity building and technical support to victims’ groups and civil society to participate fully in the implementation of the reparations program. The TRC was the first Commission to provide reparations specifically for women victims.

Overall, the Special Court for Sierra Leone remains one of the most important attempts to reshape international justice. There are many valuable lessons to be learned from its experiences, of direct relevance for future efforts. More immediately for those who it was set up to serve, however, if the Special Court is to achieve its full potential, it deserves the international community’s political and financial support in the last phase of its operations and in ensuring its continuing legacy.

David Tolbert
President of ICTJ