The push for a Sierra Leone type tribunal against Sri Lanka

UNHRC - United Nations Human Rights Council

Britain’s call for a Sierra Leone type tribunal against Sri Lanka and that utopian organization in the sky without a country called TGTE (Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam) organizing in Geneva a press conference presided by the 1st President of the UN War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone, British Mr. Geoffrey Robertson QC is obviously to push for a similar Tribunal against Sri Lanka. What these enthusiastic proponents fail to miss is that the Sierra Leone Tribunal was appointed by the UN Security Council and the Government of Sierra Leone not the UN Human Rights Commissioner who does not have such a mandate to conduct an international investigation or even lead one.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone became the 1st war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. A decade long war was covered in 7 year was just 11 indictments.

It was a court established with the concurrence of the UN Security Council and the Government of Sierra Leone in 2002 and covered period during the 10 civil war and after 30 November 1996. It was not a court set up through a country-specific Resolution in the UNHRC or led by the UN Human Rights chief who does not have a mandate to order or investigate such.

The mandate of the Sierra Leone court was to try those that bore ‘the greatest responsibility’ for the country’s decade-long civil war. What have 11 indictments done to change post-conflict? This certainly questions and raises the point being made across Sri Lanka that these trials are simply leading to polarizing communities further unless that is the objective of those making the proposals!

The memoirs of Mariatu Kamara reveals this exactly “Even if they let everyone go free, it will not make a difference to my suffering. If they killed them, it would not make up for the suffering of thousands’. Kamara is a war amputee. In Kamara’s eyes the victims have not been compensated while the Court is overflowing in foreign aid. The Sierra Leone Court unlike the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Tribunal for Rwanda was covered by voluntary contributions from international donors thus compromising the type of justice according to what the donors wanted.

The hybrid nature of the Sierra Leone Court, no different to the war tribunals in Timor-Leste and Kosovo were designed to accommodate national and international lawyers in the judicial process though in practice only a few senior Sierra Leonean lawyers were invited to the initial stages of prosecution.

In fact 4 years after the establishment of the Special Court an independent report commissioned by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan revealed that the Court’s impact on the national judiciary was minimal. So if nothing had changed in the rule of law 4 years after what was the purpose of the Tribunal?

The Sierra Leone court was instrumental in removing immunity of Liberian President Charles Taylor who was later taken to The Hague and paved the way for the ICC to indict Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. Charles Taylor, then president of neighboring Liberia, backed the insurgency providing arms and training to the RUF in exchange for diamonds. On 26 April 2012, former Liberian President Charles Taylor became the first African head of state to be convicted for his part in war crimes.

The Sierra Leone court also recognized recruitment of child soldiers and sexual slavery as crimes under international law.

While in Sierra Leone’s case the Special Court resulted in a cathartic effect knowing Charles Taylor and other rebel leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) were held accountable in the case of Sri Lanka the drum beaters are equating the Sri Lankan Government as criminals and not the LTTE.

There is a joke in Sierra Leone that detainees of the Special Court gained weight during incarceration due to the quality of food on offer while detainees of regular courts in prisons were packed like ‘meat freezers’! The Special Court is said to have spent $23million on every defendant while the police force was struggling to live on $30 per month and the Special Court was on a 4.65hectare court complex with a maintenance cost of $1,066,300 annually!

Some history of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone like Sri Lanka was a British colony. Sierra Leone was formed for freed slaves from North America first of whom returned from Canada in 1787. Liberia is another nation for freed slaves. Freed slaves in Sierra Leone came from West Africa, North America and West Indies as such they spoke different languages but developed a new language called Krio and the descendents came to be called Creole. The indigenous ethnic groups of Sierra Leone are the Mende and Temne who are spread across into neighboring Guinea and Liberia. Indirect rule, Christian mission societies created a new society. Yet the British had ensured that a division arose between the Mande and Temne ethnic groups just as they did to divide the Sinhalese and Tamils.  At independence in 1961 only 20% of Sierra Leone females were literate!


Both the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the LTTE claimed they were fighting for the average Sierra Leonean/Sri Lankan Tamil but both ended up recruiting young children and trained them to fight. Both addicted their recruits to drugs, LTTE being a forerunner in the international narcotics trade. Both indiscriminately attacked rural villages, kidnapped children and resorted to brutal fear tactics. If LTTE made its money from drugs, human smuggling, credit cards frauds etc, the RUF made its money from diamonds (diamonds were first found in Sierra Leone in 1930). Between 1937 to 1996 Sierra Leone had exported and sold nearly $15billion of diamonds. The diamond mines however were controlled by foreign companies – De Beers was one. The RUF smuggled diamonds across Sierra Leone border to Liberia and from there to Brussels – the Diamond High Council which controls the world diamond trade and these are re-exported.

The evidence that Charles Taylor President of Liberia personally supported the RUF is one of the allegations against him.

The Special Court of Sierra Leone has not left any special judicial legacy except strap the Government with a structure that it cannot afford to run! Incidentally, the President of the Sierra Leone Special Court was a Sri Lankan – Justice Raja N. Fernando who passed away.

Sierra Leoneans too are displeased that the convicts serving time were in comfortable prisons abroad while back home the people were suffering. Even Charles Taylor, if convicted will serve his sentence in a prison in Britain while other rebels too would serve their sentences elsewhere.

As for the hype in organizing a press conference pushing for a Sierra Leone type tribunal for Sri Lanka as advocated by Britain whose leader David Cameron is alleged to have compromised the integrity of the Conservative Party by accepting donations from pro-LTTE sources.

TGTE’s choice of Geoffrey Robertson is probably because he was appointed to lead the Sierra Leone Tribunal. Robertson was also to have featured in the groundbreaking judgment on recruitment of child soldiers. TGTE may not find that aspect too comfortable. LTTE recruited child soldiers and not the GOSL.

Geoffrey Robertson incidentally came under intense pressure from 3 fellow judges to quit his post as President of the UN-backed war crimes tribunal because of his alleged bias against some defendants depicting them as ‘bloodthirsty criminals’. No doubt the same scenario Sri Lanka is likely to face given the imbalance in the allegations, accusations and insinuations against the Sri Lankan Government. If there was an ‘appearance of bias’ that the fellow judges cited against Geoffrey Robertson it is no different to the ‘appearance of bias’ Sri Lanka is alleging against UN HRC Head and a host of nations, media entities, NGOs/INGOs, Human Rights champions linked to the LTTE over the years.

The key differences in the present calls for an international investigation against Sri Lanka and the comparison to Sierra Leone is that the Special Court for Sierra Leone was requested by the Sierra Leone Government. In this case the calls for international investigations are coming from foreign quarters.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was created by a UN Security Council resolution on February 22, 1993.   The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was created by a UN Security Council Resolution of November 8, 1994.  Unlike the first two, the Special Court for Sierra Leone was created at the instigation of the government of Sierra Leone through a bi-lateral treaty of January 16, 2002, between that government and the United Nations.

The conflict in Sierra Leone was between at least three warring factions.  Eleven persons, drawn from all three factions, have been charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious breaches of international humanitarian law.  These charges include “murder, rape, extermination, acts of terror, enslavement, looting and burning, sexual slavery, conscription of children into an armed force, and attacks on United Nations peacekeepers and humanitarian workers.” But what has it done for the people – the victims? Could the money spent on the judges, the tribunal and other incidentals not been given to the victim families without dragging a tribunal for 7 years with the victims still without any compensation? This is one of the key concerns the public of Sri Lanka has about bringing in international commissions which serve to only polarize the communities in a time when people are picking up pieces to start a new life.

Shenali D Waduge