Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Monday, 30 April 2012

Charles Taylor: justice done or justice seen to be done?

Wallace Johnson Statue, Freetown, Sierra Leone (c) Mark Gee
As we celebrate the guilty verdict handed down to Charles Taylor for the crimes that he helped perpetuate, we appear to have gotten carried away with the man and what it means for human rights. We seem to have lost focus of his victims whether justice has been served to those who were most affected by his crimes.

I have checked the online versions of mainstream papers based in Sierra Leone (Awareness Times, Awoko, Exclusive Press and Sierra Leone Daily Mail), and in Liberia (The 1847 Post, In Profile Daily, The Inquirer and Daily Observer). Although far from a perfect means of gathering evidence - basic internet coverage that only a small percentage of population have access to/can afford – I was hoping to understand whether local Sierra Leoneans and Liberians feel that justice has been served.

Other than stating,Thousands of survivors of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war celebrated after learning of the conviction”, the Sierra Leone Daily Mail only covers the reactions of Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL) officials, the US government, and non-government organisations (NGOs). None of the other online resources in Sierra Leone have any news on the Taylor verdict. I also understand that there has been little coverage of the Taylor verdict in the printed press in Sierra Leone.

In Liberia, all of the news outlets mentioned above have covered the verdict in some way. As well as publishing articles in the lead up to the Taylor verdict, the Liberian press have covered official and NGOs responses in more detail. The Inquirer has dedicated most coverage to public reaction. Of a local BBC phone-in, they report:
Reverend Jasper Nd'ganblor said, “...our concern is the peace that has been so far attained in the region whether it will hold and if it will help us sustain the peace it will be in the right direction...Liberia has gone through so much and that of Sierra Leone and we want the diplomatic tie to continue to abide instead of seeing each other as enemies.”
Julliet, women's advocate in Sierra Leone added her feelings by saying, “This verdict is with mixed feelings...Impunity needs to be addressed; justice needs to be given to whom it is due. This man pronounced war on Sierra Leone. He said we will taste the bitterness of war and we tasted it; the women tasted it. The women died; the women suffered and I am not happy at all.”
A local vox pops found:
Mr. Varney Konneh of Monrovia said, “I hope Sierra Leoneans are happy; they wanted justice and now they have justice. I just hope they will be at peace; Liberians will remember this day, because of Sierra Leoneans; Liberians are grieving over the situation.”
Justice has been done; there is nothing we can do about it and Sierra Leoneans are rejoicing because they think it is the right thing to do but let them know that what comes around goes around,” one Mr. Jallah said.
I am so happy that Taylor will not be set free, I suffered in this country when Taylor was in power. My daughter was raped by Taylor's so-called ATU soldiers; today he has been punished for all the wrongs he did to us,” Madam Yvonnie Smith said.

Wheelchair merchant, Monrovia, Liberia (c) whiteafrican
Other regional media outlets, such as Africa Review note:
Motorists honked in the streets of Freetown, in apparent jubilation for the verdict, but next door in Liberia, tension was high....The ruling has also reportedly heightened tension between Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Whilst the Global Post states that reactions in Liberia were mixed:
Taylor's war-crimes conviction is a watershed moment, said Aaron Weah, program associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice. "The verdict signals hope for Liberians who were victims of the civil war here that, five to six years from now, they too will get justice," said Weah.
So why might reaction in Sierra Leone be so muted?

There may well be a number of reasons for this, but it is noteworthy that their own (show) trials of Foday Sankoh, commander of the RUF, Sam Bockarie, leader of the RUF, Johnny Paul Koroma, leader of the AFRC, and Sam Hinga Norman, head of the CDF, have never taken place. Sankoh, Bockarie and Norman have all died, whilst Koroma has eluded capture and may be dead.

Eight other indictees, representing the armed forces of the rebels (RUF, AFRC) and government of Sierra Leone (CDF), have since been found guilty of war crimes atrocities. These verdicts gathered a lot less attention in the West, despite the fact that the AFRC case made legal history by ruling on the recruitment of child soldiers and forced marriage in an armed conflict for the first time.

Perhaps the most pertinent of the UK articles on the Taylor verdict and its implications for justice, is this one written by Mwangi Kimenyi and John Mbaku. In “Why wasn't it Africa that found Charles Taylor guilty?, Kimenyi and Mbaku lament the lack of institutional capacities within African justice systems to deal with human rights abuses.

In her blog post for the Overseas Development Initiative, Lisa Denney writes:
The Special Court will undoubtedly have an impact on the post-conflict landscape in Sierra Leone and, of course, sets important precedents in international law and holding political leaders to account. But its short-term nature, limited scope and overwhelming ‘foreignness’ means its will have less effect on most Sierra Leoneans than reform of the country’s legal systems (both formal and informal) – which will remain long after the white four wheel drives and international staff have departed...Indeed, most Sierra Leoneans have had to resolve grievances with community members from the civil war through informal mechanisms, without the judges, robes and new court rooms that international formal legal processes have attracted.

The future of Sierra Leone? (c) Mark Gee
So has justice been done or been seen to be done?

As of today, it is extremely difficult to assess whether Sierra Leoneans and Liberians feel that justice has been done. Whilst some may see justice as having been done, others are unhappy that Taylor has not been tried for the crimes that he committed in Liberia. More worryingly, the verdict appears to have heightened tensions between Liberia and Sierra Leone.

What is more apparent is that justice has been seen to be done, in terms of the Western media's ready acceptance of governments' and NGOs' views of the Taylor trial. Taylor himself has become the sole focus of the international community's war crimes narrative, and more important than other judicial advances (e.g. forced marriage in armed conflict).

Additionally, the SCSL cost a lot of money. As such, donor countries would want to see some form of return to justify the money spent on their international legal project.

Headlines of an historic verdict may well secure future funding for future localised, international justice projects, but it masks an important issue; international justice should reflect local victims' sense of retribution and redress. 

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