Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Seeks Aid on Tribunal


By Colum Lynch

Washington Post
June 16, 2000

The president of Sierra Leone has asked the United Nations to help set up a war crimes tribunal to try rebel leader Foday Sankoh and his followers for widespread atrocities, including the rape, mutilation and murder of civilians.

The United States and Britain support the call for a tribunal and are engaged in intensive discussions about the legal rules, jurisdiction and staffing of such a court. But they are reluctant to move on the proposal while 21 Indian peacekeepers are still being held by forces loyal to Sankoh, leader of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah appealed to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in a letter this week to provide his government with "guidance and assistance" in establishing the tribunal. Marie Okabe, a spokeswoman for Annan, said U.N. experts were studying the confidential letter, which she declined to make public.

According to Sierra Leone's ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim M'baba Kamara, the court probably would combine elements of Sierra Leonean and international law, and would be based in the region--perhaps in Nigeria, Mali or Senegal if not in Sierra Leone itself.

Kamara added that there is mounting support for a tribunal among the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, and that his government might eliminate the death penalty to garner more international backing.

"Our people say they just want to execute him," said Kamara, referring to Sankoh. "We are trying to say he doesn't need to die instantly. Let him die slowly."

During Sierra Leone's long civil war, one of the signature atrocities of Sankoh's forces was chopping off the hands of civilians they suspected of supporting the election of Kabbah.

Under a July 1999 peace agreement known as the Lome accord, Sankoh's forces were granted an amnesty within Sierra Leone, and he was given a cabinet post with effective control over the country's diamond production. But the United Nations said at the time that the agreement did not preclude an international trial for war crimes.

Last month Sankoh's fighters violated the Lome accord by resuming hostilities, seizing 500 U.N. peacekeepers as hostages and killing at least eight of the soldiers, according to U.N. officials.

Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who recently returned from Sierra Leone, said the New York-based human rights group has documented numerous cases of mutilation, abduction, rape and forced recruitment of children by RUF forces after the signing of the Lome accord, which clearly would not be covered by the amnesty.

But Bouckaert said pro-government militias also have committed war crimes.

"We think an international trial is a better option because it will provide greater legitimacy to the trial and increase the level of safeguards to ensure a fair trial for Foday Sankoh," he said. "We think it's important that the pursuit of justice move beyond Sankoh, and that they look at the responsibility of field commanders on all sides of the conflict."

The move to set up a tribunal comes two weeks after Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, promised Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) that Sankoh "must be held accountable for his actions." Partly in exchange for that assurance, Gregg agreed to release his hold on $50 million of U.S. funding for the U.N. mission in Sierra Leone.

Until this week, the United States was reluctant to create a separate, ad hoc tribunal for Sierra Leone, arguing that it would be too expensive and take too long to set up. Instead, Holbrooke told Security Council members on Monday, the United States would propose an expansion of the U.N. tribunal for Rwanda to cover the RUF.

After discussions with Britain and Sierra Leone, however, Washington's position has evolved. Now, the United States is considering a "mixed" court--along the lines of a tribunal being established for Cambodia--that would be based in the region and have both local and international staff. But sources familiar with the discussions said many issues have not been resolved. "We are making this up as we go along," said one U.N. diplomat.

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