Global Policy Forum

UN Says Sierra Leone War Crimes Court

Agence France Presse
October 5, 2000

The United Nations recommended Thursday that child soldiers aged 15-18 who had committed the worst atrocities in Sierra Leone should be brought before a new international warcrimes court.

The recommendation was contained in a report by Secretary General Kofi Annan to the Security Council, which will have the final say on the court's structure and jurisdiction. The report set out legal safeguards for protecting indicted minors. The government of Sierra Leone asked the UN last month to set up a court to try the worst excesses committed during the decade-long civil war.

Annan said crimes included "mass killing, extrajudicial executions, widespread mutiliation, in particular amputation of hands, arms, legs, lips and other parts of the body, sexual violence against girls and women, and sexual slavery." He said the council faced a "terrible dilemma" in deciding whether or not to allow the prosecution of children who had themselves been "abducted, forcibly recruited, sexually abused, reduced to slavery of all kinds."

He suggested that soldiers between the ages of 15 and 18 should only be tried as a last resort, when alternatives such as truth and reconciliation commissions were not available. But he said the possibility of holding them accountable should not be excluded.

"The gravity and seriousness of the crimes they have allegedly committed would allow for their inclusion within the jurisdiction of the court," he said. Ralph Zacklin, the UN's assistant secretary general for legal affairs, told reporters that at most only a small handful of minors might appear before the court, and none could be sentenced to prison.

There would be a special chamber for juveniles, separate from the two trial chambers for adults, he said. An indicted minor's identity would not be disclosed, and special counselling would be provided, Zacklin said.

He further emphasised that only people thought to be "most responsible" for war crimes and crimes against humanity would be indicted by the court. He said he expected it to try between 25 and 30 people, adults included. There were between 200 and 300 detainees in Sierra Leone, but "not all of them bear the same degree of responsibility", he said. "It is not intended to prosecute everybody."

At the same time, Annan reinforced the UN's view that an amnesty granted by the government to rebels could not apply to serious violations of international humanitarian law. The amnesty formed part of a peace agreement signed on July 7, 1999, in Lome, the capital of Togo.

The report recommended that the court's temporal jurisdiction date from November 30, 1996, when a previous ceasefire was negotiated. "We examined a number of dates and decided it would not be proper to limit to post-Lome offences," Zacklin said. "We did not want to make it look as if the court had been established to target one particular group of people", he added, referring to the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Foday Sankoh.

The RUF captured hundreds of soldiers from the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone in May and held them hostage for several weeks. Sankoh was arrested in May and has been in government custody since then. Zacklin said the court would have two trial chambers, each with two international judges and one appointed by the government of Sierra Leone.

The prosecutor would be appointed by the UN secretary general, and the deputy prosecutor by the government. The court would have its own appeals chamber, with three international and two national judges, because "it was felt it should be an integrated whole," he said.

He said "the court will not apply the death penalty." Prison sentences would be "served in Sierra Leone or, if circumstances warrant it, in a third country."

The proposal set African and Western diplomats at loggerheads, sources at the UN said Thursday. The idea caused "some extremely emotional meetings", said Ralph Zacklin, the UN assistant secretary general for legal affairs, who discussed it with senior law officers in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

The controversy delayed for almost a week a report sent on Thursday by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the Security Council, which will have the final say on the court's structure and jurisdiction.

Zacklin said the prosecution of child soldiers was "the most difficult issue we have had to face." In drafting the report, he said, the legal department also consulted the UN children's fund (UNICEF), Annan's special representative for children in armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch.

Sierra Leone's ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Kamara, told AFP that his government saw "no reason why children between the ages of 15 and 18 should not be tried" if they had committed atrocities.

"All we are doing is trying to establish some accountability," he said. "We are not going to send them to jail. They will not be tried in an adult court," he added. Kamara said that in the absence of some form of legal process, mob justice might take over. "This is why some of them were kept in prison, for their own safety," he said.

Annan's report said that "in Sierra Leone the rank of 'brigadier' was often granted to children as young as 11 years." A UN official, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP that this rank was given to someone who had killed at least 200 people. Otunnu once told reporters that the youngest amputee he had met in Sierra Leone was a 10-month-old boy.

Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in New York, said it was "entirely inappropriate for this court to try child soldiers." In a telephone interview, he said: "Most of these children were abducted and forced to commit atrocities. They are already living with tremendous guilt and to bring them before an international court would only serve to further traumatise them."

But Kamara said "there are about 15 minors in jail now, and when I saw them, they did not seem traumatised." When it was pointed out that a 16-year-old who committed murder or rape in a developed country would be brought before a court, Bouckaert replied: "Sierra Leone is a very different situation, where rebel warlords have abducted thousands of children."

Bouckaert said he visited Sierra Leone in June and was told by former child soldiers "we followed orders so as not to be killed."

UN sources said that some very senior UN officials from Western European countries endorsed the sort of views Bouckaert had expressed, but officials from African nations had disagreed.

More Information on the War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone
More Information on Sierra Leone
More Information on War Crimes Tribunals


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