Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Fears Support for


By Barbara Crossette

New York Times
April 17, 2001

Sierra Leone is concerned that richer nations are backing off promises to establish a criminal tribunal to prosecute rebels for brutality against civilians, African diplomats have said in interviews. The government had been hoping to see an increase soon in the number of United Nations peacekeepers and the beginning of investigations that might lead to prosecuting rebels for war crimes.

What is at issue is the cost of setting up a tribunal for Sierra Leone that would be similar in purpose to those for the Balkans, Cambodia and Rwanda, but singular in being a joint national and international body. The war crimes tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda are purely international in staffing. In Cambodia, the government wants effective control of a court that is still in the final planning stages. Sierra Leone has asked for a tribunal based there but functioning with the help of foreign judges and administrators. The task ahead for country's weak government is enormous.

The rebel Revolutionary United Front, led by Foday Sankoh, who is in custody, was responsible for some of the most brutal atrocities against civilians seen in recent years. With the situation in the country still unstable in many areas, the government is eager to see trials begin.

Leading members of the Security Council, including the United States, wanted the court to be paid for with contributions, not binding assessments. Secretary General Kofi Annan argued for assessments, saying voluntary contributions have proven unreliable. In a compromise, United Nations officials have had to accept voluntary support, but have insisted that $30 million for the first year's costs be available before the tribunal begins work. Officials also want firm pledges of support for two succeeding years.

Today, United Nations legal experts will meet with countries highly likely to support the Sierra Leone tribunal to explain how the start-up costs have been calculated. Some Security Council members contend that the projections are too high. Only 12 nations have volunteered support, with Britain providing an initial grant of less than $1 million for initial planning work. The Clinton administration approved forming such a court. The Bush administration has not decided what level of support to provide.

In Sierra Leone, however, an African diplomat said, the concern is that the plans for the tribunal may well be too modest, because a large number of people were involved in the carnage, hacking off the limbs of civilians and leaving many people without houses or livelihoods.

Some officials in Sierra Leone would also like to extend the jurisdiction of the court beyond the country's borders, especially to neighboring Liberia, where President Charles Taylor backed the rebels by selling Sierra Leone's diamonds for arms. Moreover, Sierra Leone says, if the court is seen to be limited to trying people captured in the country, potential indictees will flee to escape arrest.

Western diplomats say it is inconceivable that regional African leaders would accept a war crimes trial for Mr. Taylor. The Security Council has had resistance from some African governments even on imposing sanctions against Mr. Taylor, who is widely regarded as the central figure in a large international arms smuggling network financed by illegal sales of diamonds and other natural resources.

More Information on Sierra Leone and the Special Court
More Information on War Crimes Tribunals
More Information on Sierra Leone


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