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History of the Civil War in Sierra Leone Case Study

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Updated: Jul 15th, 2021

Introduction: Brief History of the Civil War in Sierra Leone

The famous Sierra Leone Civil War erupted in March 1991, lasting for more than a decade before peaceful intervention calmed the prevailing tensions in 2002. The conflict emanated from a move by former Liberian government official Charles Taylor who returned to Liberia with the aim of upsetting the regime in the early 1990s. Consequently, Taylor’s actions triggered civil unrest that took root in Liberia before spreading to Sierra Leone within a short period. Sierra Leone’s rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), in collaboration with special forces from Taylor’s previous government associates in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), sought to overthrow Sierra Leone’s president, Joseph Saidu Momoh.

In response, President Momoh sent his troops to push the rebels fighting for Taylor back into Liberia. In the course of events, Taylor’s rebels and RUF supporters led by Foday Sankoh, a former leader of Sierra Leone’s defense force, ambushed Momoh’s army, thereby intensifying the conflict. A close examination of the civil war reveals the extent to which it exposed Sierra Leone to devastation and adversity while at the same time claiming the lives of over 50,000 people.

Major Problems of the War

The unrest witnessed in Sierra Leone triggered significant problems, disrupting peace in the country for over a decade. One notable problem associated with these civil hostilities was the high death rate recorded between 1991 and 2002. Estimates indicate that the civil war in Sierra Leone led to the loss of approximately 30,000 to 50,000livesand left over 400,00 people injured (Ainley et al. “Transitional Justice” 11).

War atrocities and crimes against humanity triggered by perpetrators such as Taylor and his supporters accounted for the massive death count witnessed in Sierra Leone. The war also reduced the country’s population to a state of poverty. Currently, Sierra Leone is considered among the poorest countries in the world, in 14th position out of 25 countries having populations subject to extreme poverty (Millar 1703). Approximately 70% of citizens in this country live below the poverty line. The civil war, which spanned slightly over a decade, considerably undermined developmental agendas in Sierra Leone, despite the country’s possession of valuable natural resources, especially diamonds, gold, and iron ore.

After gaining independence from Great Britain in 1961, Sierra Leone was projected to record substantial growth and development due to its rich resources (Ainley et al. “Transitional Justice” 9). Thus, the civil war that Taylor orchestrated also denoted his interest in diamonds, leading to the emergence of the phrase “blood diamonds.” As such, by targeting the rich resources in Sierra Leone’s eastern provinces, Taylor financed rebels and supplied them with arms to gain control of all eastern territories. The adverse effects of the confrontations that followed entailed substantial losses at mining centers. To date, the interest of RUF supporters in controlling mining bases remains evident.

International actors led by the UN participated in Sierra Leone’s civil war to facilitate conflict resolution processes. The UN’s relationship with the state, as well as the country’s society, has been characterized by mixed reactions since some parties express support while others raise concerns regarding its effectiveness in promoting peace and cohesion in Sierra Leone. The establishment of the Special Courts for Sierra Leone (SCSL) through the efforts of the UN in 2002 is regarded as a move that fostered links between the international body, the state, and its society (Evans 168). Nonetheless, the composition of the SCSL has been criticized due to the ineffectiveness of the UN in addressing peace- and justice-related issues for the Sierra Leonean society.

The Emergence of the Idea of Transitional Justice

The need to restore peace and facilitate reconciliation in Sierra Leone prompted adoption of the idea of transitional justice. The legacy of the national war in Sierra Leone has been characterized by intense violence against innocent civilians, bloody struggles over the control of the country’s diamond mines, the recruitment of child soldiers, and the abduction of women and children. Other elements that have formed part of this legacy have included sexual slavery and vicious destruction of villages and towns, among other adversities. This situation called for the adoption of a transitional justice (TJ) system (Evans 173). TJ was aimed at promoting peace and justice in the country by addressing issues triggered by the civil war.

In July 1999, the Lomé Peace Agreement was established to facilitate the realization of transitional justice in Sierra Leone. The International Center for Transition Justice (ICTJ) backed the need to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) to help in enforcing the Lomé Peace Agreement (Evans 180). In addition, the idea of transition justice emerged due to the need for establishing truth and reconciliation as well as reparations. As a result, the TJ concept was seen as a promising platform that provided opportunities to the victims of the civil war to share their experiences with the aim of promoting peace and justice.

Special Courts and the TRC

The SCSL and the TRC constituted the major forms of transitional justice in Sierra Leone. These two tribunals simultaneously addressed various issues of peace, justice, and reconciliation in Sierra Leone following the violent conflict that had afflicted this country for more than a decade. The SCSL was created in 2002 after the government of Sierra Leone agreed to collaborate with the UN to bring about peace and justice amid the problems caused by the civil war (Evans 184). The major mandate of the SCSL was to address serious crimes perpetrated by particular individuals against innocent civilians. The SCSL served as an initial hybrid international criminal tribunal facilitated by the government of Sierra Leone and the UN that sought to scrutinize the parties alleged to have triggered the civil war.

In comparison, the TRC was created following the establishment of a condition in the Lomé Peace Accord. The international community assisted in the development of the TRC due to the need for collaboration in the interest of realizing justice and reconciliation in Sierra Leone (Evans 169). The TRC had several mandates it needed to fulfill when working together with the SCSL between 2002 and 2004.

For example, this body helped to develop a neutral historical account of the violations and abuses of human rights during Sierra Leone’s armed conflict. The TRC also focused on addressing the issue of impunity, taking care of victims, fostering healing and reconciliation, and curbing repetition of similar atrocities and abuses.The TRC presented a final report in 2002 to the UN and the government of Sierra Leone capturing the details of its intervention in bringing justice and reconciliation after a decade-long civil war.

The Positives and Negatives of the SCSL and the TRC

Positives of the SCSL

The establishment of the SCSL embodied a strategy that clarified the issue of ownership when scrutinizing the main perpetrators who violated and abused human rights during the civil war (Cohen 3). The formation of the first hybrid tribunal to address justice matters regarding the unrest involved a formal agreement between Sierra Leone and the United Nations. Hence, the shared ownership of the International Criminal Tribunal eliminated the possibility of conflicts of interests or biases.

The SCSL also had a positive impact in promoting peace, justice, and reconciliation in Sierra Leone after the civil war since it did not experience interference from the national government (Cohen 13); thus, the efficiency of the processes that the SCSL facilitated can be attributed to a lack of government intrusion. Moreover, the SCSL successfully conducted capacity-building exercises in domestic courts (Cohen 22). Financial resources allocated to the SCSL allowed it to establish initiatives that enabled the domestic court system to record substantial improvements.

Negatives of the SCL

The structural composition of the SCSL could not act as an effective hybrid international criminal tribunal. Structurally, it consisted of one appeals chamber and two trials chambers (Cohen 12). This composition seemed unbalanced in terms of offering limited opportunities for appeals. Furthermore, the composition of the jury in the SCSL was perceived to be unfair because only two judges from Sierra Leone, one in the appeals chambers and the other in the trials chambers, participated in the proceedings of the SCSL.

The rest of the judges came from the international community, promoting a sense of misrepresentation or lack of neutrality. Moreover, the composition of the prosecution teams mainly constituted members from the international community, whereas the defense panel was comprised of Sierra Leonean and international members, creating room for compromise in the cases heard by the court.

Positives of the TRC

The TRC reported key findings to the administration of Sierra Leone and the UN concerning the civil war, thus streamlining the SCSL processes. Some remarkable results of the TRC included identifying the central causes of the violence, which included greed, nepotism, and corruption (Evans 176). The TRC report also provided descriptions of government accountability in targeting civilians, the role of diamond resources in the conflict, and the underlining inalienability of the right to truth.

The TRC also fostered reparations in Sierra Leone after the violent conflict ended. It facilitated the implementation of specific programs that enhanced reparation and reconciliation between abusers and the victims of the atrocities that came out of the civil war (Friedman 59). For example, the TRC identified the beneficiaries of such reparations programs as agricultural assistance and remembrance ceremonies. Moreover, the TRC offered valuable recommendations that played a central part in mitigating the return of civil war tensions in Sierra Leone. Such proposals have helped to foster the accountability of institutions and the adoption of a modern human rights culture in this country (Ainley et al. “The Potential and Politics” 271). The TRC also encouraged visionary leadership in Sierra Leone.

Negatives of the TRC

The failure of the government of Sierra Leone to fully implement the recommendations of the TRC illustrates the limitations of the TRC (Ainley et al. “The Potential and Politics” 269). For example, the execution of visionary leadership in Sierra Leone remains poor, and close to 70% of the country’s population languishes in abject poverty.

Specific Elements Within Transition Justice

The TRC included truth commissions that facilitated the execution of justice initiatives in Sierra Leone. For instance, the TRC conducted public hearings and community-based reconciliation (Jackson 204). The TRC also boosted connections with the SCSL and the entire justice system in Sierra Leone to promote reforms (Evans 181). Collaboration between truth commissions and the SCSL played a crucial role in enhancing legitimacy and reunification after the conclusion of the fierce conflict.

The TRC also established various programs to facilitate reparations in Sierra Leone. The TRC’s implementation of these compensation initiatives sought to benefit the actual victims of the conflict (Jackson 207) in that the TRC focused on meeting the needs of the victims of atrocities as well as dealing with the human rights abuses reported during the civil war.

Interactions Between the Global and the Local

After 2002, which marked the end of the civil unrest witnessed in Sierra Leone, local and international actors joined to help this country to transition effectively to peace. In particular, they proposed the need for an operational transitional justice program to integrate legal personalities whose goal would be to establish mechanisms for circumventing similar occurrences in the future (Adityavarman).

Accomplishing this objective has called for the continued participation of both international and domestic political agencies and individuals who have offered constructive support, which has paved way for peace-building opportunities and the initiation of efficient approaches to dispensing justice in Sierra Leone. According to Ainley et al., it is crucial to assess the degree to which transitional justice procedures in this country can be deemed effective (“The Potential and Politics” 265). Overall, the success of TJ efforts in Sierra Leone will highly depend on the level of dedication, sustainable planning, and collaboration among local and international actors.

Ainley et al., however, confirm the existence of difficulties due to the diverse interpretations of parameters that should be considered when appraising the extent of TJ procedures’ efficiency in Sierra Leone (“The Potential and Politics” 266). Such challenges can be attributed to the inevitable globalization of transitional justice, highlighting the need to factor in interactions on local and global levels. The possibility of conflicts, especially when the above two levels overlap, has been a challenge reported in the interpretation of SCSL rulings and international criminal law (Ainley et al. “The Potential and Politics” 266; Millar 1703).

Despite the observed variety of scholarly perspectives, it may be wise to gauge the efficacy of TJ procedures based on the legacies established, such as SCSL’s efforts to enhance the operations of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

Whose Justice Is It?

According to Jackson, the dispensation of justice in Sierra Leone after the civil war ending in 2002 follows a process characterized by complicated local organizational systems as opposed to globally recognized structures (197). Such issues as the changing nature of these institutions and their excessive dependence on other agencies have contributed to the reported compromised interpretation and dispensation of justice (Adityavarman).

The results of Sierra Leone’s justice frameworks and procedures have typically reflected the biased views of the prevailing social systems. This situation has contradicted efforts by citizens and state-level pacts seeking to implement human rights policies (Jackson 197). In the context of Sierra Leone, the execution of local authority is not fully supported despite its role in helping to accord justice to the country’s marginalized groups, including individuals at the village level.

Specifically, local power has been manifested through court arrangements and the deployment of elders to settle disputes at the rural community level. However, this strategy of exercising authority in Sierra Leone has been criticized for discriminating against women and young adults because they are given little opportunity to participate in the justice dispensation process, an indictment of the entire system’s inefficiency (Jackson 197).

Transitional justice approaches that were deployed post-Sierra Leone’s civil unrest did not take into account the complex nature of the above configurations (Adityavarman). For example, according to Jackson, the TRC and the SCSL only focused on dispensing justice to people who lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital (197). As a result, this arrangement faced heavy criticism for failing to integrate local structures into transitional justice procedures.

In the end, the SCLC and the TRC failed to accomplish the mandates they were established to achieve, such as working closely with the prevailing conventional systems in Sierra Leone. Nonetheless, despite efforts by the Justice Sector Development Program (JSDP) to transform Sierra Leone’s failing justice structures in 2005, the country has yet to develop and implement a strategy that can help in addressing issues regarding the accumulation of cases, pitiable documentation approaches, and inadequate space in various detention centers (Millar 1702). As a result, justice should be granted to individuals in rural communities instead of marginalizing them asthe current system has done (Adityavarman). The idea of deploying village elders and chiefs may need to be emphasized because this approach guarantees effective dispensation of justice to Sierra Leone’s countryside population.

Peace or Justice: Are Both Possible?

Scholars have continued to debate the incompatibility of peace and justice, especially when applied to any country that, like Sierra Leone, is characterized by complicated conflicts. According to Adityavarman, these two goals seem ambiguous due to the implied idea of promoting peace while at the same time demanding that culprits be held responsible for their actions that led to the civil war. In the case of a vulnerable country such as Sierra Leone, deploying peace-building strategies can play a huge role in enhancing reconciliation, which highly determines its citizens’ future (Jackson 198; Millar 1701).

Although justice may appear to trigger further conflicts, including hostility and separation, its contribution to the overall goal of fighting unrest in Sierra Leone cannot be underestimated. According to Adityavarman, peace and justice need to be emphasized due to their capacity to boost stability and lasting progress as this country’s post-conflict modernization process proceeds.

Deploying the two mechanisms simultaneously ensures that Sierra Leone will realize sustainable advancements as it recovers from the consequences of the civil war ending in 2002. However, according to Adityavarman, another transitional justice component that cannot be overlooked in the case of Sierra Leone entails the prosecution of wrongdoers. This strategy must be deployed by holding all criminals answerable for their illegal actions as a way of averting further excesses in this country. Overall, peace and justice are possible and worth implementing in Sierra Leone.

Conclusion

The civil war witnessed in Sierra Leone created major problems, including high death rates, poverty, and complex relationships between international actors, the state, and the society. The idea of transitional justice, adopted in 2002, led to the formation of the SCSL and the TRC. These two agencies worked simultaneously, resulting in benefits such as the successful promotion of peace, justice, and reconciliation, capacity building, reparations, and recommendations. Nonetheless, some disadvantages of the transitional justice process entailed unbalanced arrangements of judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in the hybrid criminal tribunal. Criticism also followed the failure of the government of Sierra Leone to fully implement the recommendations of the country’s truth commission.

Works Cited

Adityavarman, Ranissa, editor. “Cornell Policy Review. 2018. Web.

Ainley, Kirsten, et al. “The Potential and Politics of Transitional Justice: Interactions between the Global and the Local in Evaluations of Success.” Evaluating Transitional Justice. Rethinking Peace and Conflict Studies, edited by Kirsten Ainley, et al., Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 265-279.

—. “Transitional Justice in Sierra Leone: Theory, History and Evaluation.” Evaluating Transitional Justice. Rethinking Peace and Conflict Studies, edited by Kirsten Ainley, et al., Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 1-18.

Cohen, David. “Hybrid Justice in East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia: Lessons Learned and Prospects for the Future.” Stanford Journal of International Law, vol. 43, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-38.

Evans, Christine. The Right to Reparation in International Law for Victims of Armed Conflict: The Role of the UN in Advocating for State Responsibility. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Friedman, Rebekka. “Restorative Justice in Sierra Leone: Promises and Limitations.” Evaluating Transitional Justice. Rethinking Peace and Conflict Studies, edited by Kirsten Ainley, et al., Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 55-76.

Jackson, Paul. “Whose Justice in Sierra Leone? Power, Security and Justice in Post-Conflict Reconstruction.” Evaluating Transitional Justice. Rethinking Peace and Conflict Studies, edited by Kirsten Ainley, et al., Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 197-215.

Millar, Gearoid. “Investing in Peace: Foreign Direct Investment as Economic Restoration in Sierra Leone?” Third World Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 9, 2015, pp. 1700-1716.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "History of the Civil War in Sierra Leone." July 15, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-of-the-civil-war-in-sierra-leone/.

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