Have Sierra Leone’s Citizens Been Forgotten in the Quest for Justice?
Charles Taylor’s sentencing to 50 years’ imprisonment on 11 counts of war crimes is undeniably momentous. However, with Sierra Leoneans still suffering abject poverty and remaining in dire need of aid, it must be questioned for whose benefit the costly War Crimes Court really is, writes EMMA PURDY
The Special Court for Sierra Leone will conclude this year on a triumphant note, with former Liberian president Charles Taylor now the first ex-head of state convicted by international justice since the 1946 Nuremburg trials.
The 64-year-old was found guilty this April of arming and supporting Revolutionary United Front rebels in exchange for illegally mined blood diamonds and thus “aiding and abetting” the country’s brutal civil war. He was sentenced on 30 May to 50 years’ imprisonment, having been held “criminally responsible” by judges after a protracted four-and-a-half-year trial.
From the outset in January 2008, after Taylor boycotted the initial 2007 proceedings, the trial was lauded as the first ever of a former African head of state in an international court. Taylor was the Court’s 11th defendant from a total of 21 indictments since its establishment in January 2002, its remit being to try “those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law” during the 11-year conflict.
Others included three former RUF leaders, Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon, Augustine Gbao, found guilty in April 2009 of atrocities including cannibalism, enlistment of child soldiers, amputation and sexual slavery. They were sentenced to 52 years, 40 years and 25 years respectively, their combined four-and-a-half-year trial and subsequent appeals, all emphatically denied, costing in total over $150m.
Taylor’s trial costs have now surpassed all others, rendering him the single most expensive defendant in the history of international criminal justice. The proceedings to date, including a near year-and-half-long defence case that attracted considerable derision throughout, have cost a reported total of $50m.
The Court’s operating funds have been voluntarily supplied by more than 40 UN-member states, with several additional contributions made by its major donors the USA, Britain, Canada, Nigeria and the Netherlands to ensure its denouement. During Taylor’s trial, repeated concerns were voiced about the possibility of its forced abandonment by UN officials, who claimed this would “jeopardise the fight against impunity” and “send the wrong message to the international community.”
Notwithstanding the importance of international justice, one has to question in this instance whether it should take precedence over the needs of Sierra Leoneans, most of whom a decade since the culmination of a vicious war still struggle just to stay alive. Although ten years have passed since the country’s emergence from the war which left 120,000 dead and 2m displaced, the resource-rich nation ironically remains one of the poorest in the world. It ranked just 180th out of 187 countries in the 2011 Human Development Index, where it held a hindmost position until 2008.
Despite ostentatious influxes of aid, assumed by many to be helping citizens redevelop and restructure their war-torn land, the reality is quite different. Money is rarely reaching those who need it most, with almost the entire 6m population continuing to live in appalling conditions of indigence. More than half suffer extreme poverty and hunger, with 53% currently living on less than $1 a day.
Deprived of basic necessities such as clean water, electricity and healthcare, the majority is forced to rely on traditional medicine to survive, with life expectancy among the lowest in the world at just 48 years. Maternal and child mortality rates are among highest, with one third of children under five suffering chronic malnutrition. One fifth do not even reach that age, often simply due to drinking contaminated water.
While people perish from the ravages of preventable diseases, draconian policies of the World Bank and IMF often dedicate much-needed funds to privatisation and export development. Meanwhile, the lingering UN presence, continually evolving from the initial UNAMSIL mission into the essentially equivalent UNIOSL and current UNIPSIL, is causing further indebtedness in foreign aid, a large amount of which is being used to pay for its overseas procurement and international staff.
While several development agencies have made substantial progress, many argue aid dependency could be reduced by more targeted investment in participatory approaches to engage local communities in planning and implementing their own development. Internationally-dominated efforts are seen to be disempowering locals, while the need for increased access to education is also viewed as paramount, with adult literacy currently standing at just 41%.
In particular, several NGOs have raised concerns about the current accelerated land tenure reform funded by the IMF and World Bank overlooking the rights of locals in favour of corporate interests. The process, aimed at facilitating large-scale international agricultural investment, has allowed corporate giants to impose coercive land acquisitions by exerting insuperable economic force on small landowners.
Research conducted by the Oakland Institute on the social, economic and political implications of land investments between October 2010 and January 2011 found that despite an ubiquitous state of food insecurity, free-market policies are curtailing state agricultural investments in favour of food importation. Meanwhile, farmland previously cultivated for food is being offered with huge tax incentives to large-scale foreign investors to produce non-food exports, often in up to 50-year leases.
The resultant land-grab to produce agro- and biofuels has seen small farmers losing their livelihoods, with arable land formerly used in a bush fallow system for food production, both for subsistence and sale, transferred to international corporations. As well as decreased food supplies and income, several other social and environmental benefits of the bush fallow system including provision of vital community supplies such as firewood, livestock fodder and medicinal plants, are being destroyed.
Oakland found that while promises of employment and alleged development opportunities were the main reasons landowners and local community chiefs agreed to the leases, there were widespread complaints of a lack of transparency, poor consultation with local communities and no consideration given for loss of farmland or negative environmental impacts. There was also substantial evidence of those campaigning for corporate accountability suffering beatings, intimidation and threats.
The report detailed the arrest of 40 farmers who petitioned the government for renegotiation of a 40-year lease agreement on their farmland to oil palm and rubber company, Socfin, in October last year. Despite arguing they had not been properly consulted, were cheated with information and that “compensation for plantation and annual land rent completely ridicules the value for loss of land and livelihood incomes of land owning families,” 15 were charged with “riotous behaviour” and “unlawful assembly” before being remanded in prison custody for seven days. They are currently released on bail while court trials are pending.
Oakland described a pattern of coercion, lack of consultation and failure to fairly compensate landowners who were pressured into ceding their land, describing Sofcin as “running roughshod over the rights of local landowners.” Its main shareholder, Bolloré Group, is similarly accused of acquiring land cheaply through questionable processes and operating plantations with abysmal employment conditions, insalubrious living quarters and paltry wages.
The report highlighted particular concerns about women farmers who it found to be “extremely vulnerable in the face of land negotiations.” It noted that women continue to have no legal title to land and are ineligible for compensation from leases, thus “women are generally not present at consultations with investors and, even if they are, they have no voice. In many cases, they are not even aware that the land they are cultivating is being leased ... therefore, women are not entitled to a share of land rental fees, even when they lose their land.”
Remedial legislation enacted in June 2007 to protect women’s rights is known to be failing due to poor consultation with local communities in its drafting. International advisors’ failure to translate the law into ethnic languages, of which there are over 20 in Sierra Leone, maintains widespread ignorance of its existence. Thus, despite laws to protect property inheritance in marriage, women continue to be regarded as property of their husbands and are usually denied plantation rights when widowed, considered instead something else to be inherited by the deceased’s family.
Despite government awareness of these problems, very little is being done to tackle them. In its 2012 country report on Sierra Leone, Amnesty International found that no efforts have been made to amend the constitution, which still permits discrimination on the basis of marriage, divorce, burial and inheritance. It similarly found that land use agreements between corporations, the government and communities were characterised by inadequate consultation, lack of information, lack of transparency and intimidation.
Rather than raising awareness of any of these issues, the international media continue in their role as abettors with exclusive focus on vilification of Taylor and the long-departed RUF. Multitudinous reports of the RUF’s barbaric human rights abuses alongisde graphic depictions of mutilated children continue to misleadingly cause the country’s name to remain synonymous with war, when in reality it faces new challenges.
Just as attention is diverted from current internal issues, repeated portrayals of a “helpless” nation “saved” by international aid ignore the outside causes of the former conflict. Images of plundering gangs high on drugs that brought the blood diamond trade to international attention have done nothing to investigate the background of the small arms and drugs trades, nor their production or trafficking, encouraging many to mistakenly characterise both as African-created problems.
Such misconceptions are repeatedly reinforced by Western leaders, recently by US President Barack Obama in his 2009 Ghana speech when he rejected any US responsibility for the recruitment of child soldiers in African wars. This denial, not only in Sierra Leone’s case, is paradoxical, given the US consumes more than 80% of the world’s diamonds.
It is also widely known that Britain supplied the Sierra Leonean army with free rifles in its battle to defeat the RUF. Given Sierra Leoneans had a then life expectancy of just 40 years, with 50% of the population under the age of 15, this was clearly done in the knowledge most of those arms would end up in children’s hands, with both sides resorting to any means possible to win the war.
However, such duplicity escapes unchallenged by the media, as is Western powers’ complicity to the venality of governments with whom they traded for decades, ultimately causing the dire economic conditions that prompted the RUF’s usurpation of power. Their capitalist-provoked revolt is routinely obscured by rigorous focus on their ruthlessness and barbarism, with almost unanimous media portrayal of a crazy, incomprehensible conflict.
Such simplistic focus ignores the reality that Sierra Leoneans continue to suffer the effects of imperialism and capitalism which today keep their country destabilised. Its painfully slow rebuilding process has clearly been dominated by foreign interests, with profits from not only diamond exports but also oil palm, coffee, bauxite, timber and cocoa voraciously withheld by the oligarchy at the expense of the marginalised population.
This is now overseen by a widely suspected neo-colonialist government, to which Britain appointed nine key personnel immediately following intervention. Little has been done to investigate their backgrounds or contacts, or most notably why ten years of bloodshed were permitted to elapse before intervention, with an estimated 50,000 lives lost and 30,000 amputations carried out by rebels at the time of the UN’s 18-month embargo on diamond exports in July 2000.
However, many suspect tacit consent to the erosion of state power, motivated by economic opportunism regarding unexplored diamond mines and other resource-rich land. Most foreign investors likely acquired extremely favourable contracts and concessions in the country’s anarchic environment so as to capitalise on investment.
Rather than attempting to monitor those companies' operations or their policies, the media instead focus on the accomplishments of the War Crimes Court. Coverage similarly ignores the hypocrisy of spending hundreds of millions to punish a handful of human rights violators for a crime which has simultaneously been acquiesced to elsewhere, including the Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Even a fraction of the immense funds could much more usefully be spent on preventative measures to stamp out the blood diamond trade, such as implementing tighter controls through the diamond-certification Kimberley Process, given just one company, De Beers, remains in control of rough diamonds. Although in operation since 2003, the purported attempt to stop diamond mining-related violence only bans diamonds that finance rebel movements in war-torn countries.
It continues to certify diamonds as “conflict free” despite evidence of killings, torture camps for uncooperative diamond miners and children being forced to mine for diamonds in various countries. While knowingly contributing directly to violence and chronic instability, its current chair, the USA, released a statement hailing Taylor’s trial “an important step towards delivering justice and accountability for the victims in Sierra Leone and restoring peace and stability in the country and region.”
Continuing political and security concerns in Freetown were the cause of Taylor’s trial transfer to the International Criminal Court’s facilities. Although retaining the Special Court’s mandate and auspices, the location was significant to many, with the ICC widely accused of being inherently biased and supporting a neo-colonialist agenda.
Taylor’s lead counsel, Courtenay Griffiths QC, vociferously criticised international justice as “targeting African countries” and noted that “all those currently awaiting trial at the International Court are from Africa.” During its ten years of operation it has launched prosecutions only against Africans, while simultaneously procrastinating agreeing a working definition for the “crime of aggression” until June 2010.
This despite the fact that the Nuremburg Tribunal’s definition rendered both George Bush and Tony Blair guilty of war crimes far greater than Taylor’s for the illegal war against Iraq, which left 1m dead. Both now remain immune from prosecution, due to the fact its new definition cannot operate retrospectively
Blair openly praised Taylor’s charging as a “really important” process which would enable Sierra Leoneans “to draw a line under their past”, while the UN lead prosecutor, Brenda Hollis, called it a “historic judgment” which she claimed demonstrated how “heads of state will be held to account for war crimes,” adding, “No person, no matter how powerful, is above the law.”
The international media, ignoring such glaring hypocrisy, continue to simply spout unanimous success stories about Taylor’s conviction. He will now remain in the Hague for several months while his lawyers appeal his sentence, before the Special Court concludes later this year at a total cost of no less than $250m.
Taylor is then expected to serve his sentence in a British maximum-security prison, at an estimated annual cost of $150,000. Thereafter, daily life for disenfranchised Sierra Leoneans will no doubt resume in much the same impoverished reality as it did before the civil war.
Taylor, like all leaders who advocate state-sanctioned violence, deserves punishment for any crimes he has endorsed. However, allowing the successful charging of a select few to act as a spectacular distraction from others’ guilt, or worse, from the continued exploitation of Sierra Leoneans, is just as abominable a crime.
The least we owe the victims of 150 years of hegemony and over a decade of ferocious war is to stop pretending we do not know the real causes of their predicament.