Sierra Leoneans Reflect on SCSL in 'Seeds of Justice'

This year in Freetown, a unique court will close its doors.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone— a hybrid court established jointly by the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone—is nearing the end of its mandate to prosecute the most responsible perpetrators of crimes during the country’s civil war, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, raped, and mutilated, and hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes.

On International Justice Day, July 17th, ICTJ looks at the legacy of the Special Court for Sierra Leone through the voices of those to whom its work was most important: the citizens of Sierra Leone.

Our new multimedia project, “Seeds of Justice: Sierra Leone,” presents five portraits of Sierra Leoneans whose lives were impacted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

We wanted to know: What has the court done for their country? What will it leave behind once it closes its doors? How did the trials affect their lives?

This series of intimate, tender images from award-winning photographer Glenna Gordon helps to tell the stories of daily life in Sierra Leone after more than a decade since the end of the conflict. In their own words, these individuals speak of the terrifying uncertainty in being forced to flee from home, the devastating heartache of personal loss, the pain of families torn apart by the chaos of war.

They are stories of personal triumph, and a testament to the slow and steady post-conflict recovery of communities of Sierra Leone—the opening of storefronts at dawn, weeding the gardens, or going to the polls—under all of which lies the confidence in the return of rule of law to their country.

These Sierra Leoneans have no illusions about the work still to be done, and each is actively working in their own way to improve the lives of their communities. But each is clear that the SCSL’s contribution to accountability after the war has given them a sense of trust in the institutions, and has left them with a sense that in Sierra Leone, justice can be done.

The Voices of "Seeds of Justice"


    Aminata Sesay is a businesswoman who owns Amsays Own Goods, a small provisions store located in one of the busiest squares of Freetown. “Without justice, no matter what developments might be going on now, there is no peace." ‪

    Mohamad Bah was a student when war broke out in Sierra Leone. He was captured by the rebels and forced to fight with other child soldiers. Now, he is an advocate for others with disabilities. “We want Charles Taylor to remain in jail,” he says. “If justice is done, I believe everything will be okay for us.”

    Claire Carlton Hanciles is the chief of the defense office at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. During the war, she was forced to flee Sierra Leone. Today, she protects the due process rights of the accused. "I saw the rule of law turned upside down.”

    Princess AD Rogers works as a women’s rights advocate in Kenema. “Women are still being violated, women are still being beaten, women are still being killed by their boyfriends or husbands, girls are still being raped, all because the doers of these crimes were left free.”

    Chief Kasanga II is a traditional chief in Makeni, the second biggest town in Sierra Leone. On a daily basis, he is asked for advice and guidance by his community. “Now we have the belief that no matter who you are, no matter the wealth you have, the court will be above you.”


Looking at a Legacy of the Special Court for Sierra Leone

“Seeds of Justice: Sierra Leone” is part of an ICTJ project that has brought together Sierra Leoneans and the international community over the past year to reflect upon the work of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).

The project "Exploring the Legacy of the Special Court for Sierra Leone" asked the hard questions about the SCSL: How should we understand the impact of its accomplishments, the lessons from its struggles and shortcomings, and its role in larger efforts to promote accountability for serious crimes?

To help preserve the history of the SCSL, we developed an interactive timeline charting the significant milestones in the eleven years of court’s existence. In addition to hosting two major conferences, we produced a series of podcast interviews with experts on the Special Court, including Sierra Leone’s Ambassador Allieu Ibrahim Kanu, United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Stephen J. Rapp, and international justice practitioner Alison Smith.

“If justice is done, I believe everything will be okay for us." - Mohamad Bah, former child soldier
    For the culmination of the project, we set out to consider the legacy of the court as seen through the eyes of survivors of the conflict in Sierra Leone: a women’s rights activist, a lawyer, a traditional chief, a businesswoman, and an advocate for persons with disabilities who is himself an amputee.

Creating the Special Court for Sierra Leone

After ten years of a brutal civil war, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, raped, and mutilated, and hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes, the government of Sierra Leone in 2002 joined with the United Nations to create the SCSL, to try those most responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On June 12th, 2000, Sierra Leone President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah sent a letter to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to ask for assistance to establish a credible court to prosecute perpetrators of crimes committed during the civil war.

The Special Court was designed to investigate and prosecute those who bore the greatest responsibility for “serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law” committed in the territory of Sierra Leone after November 30, 1996.

Over the course of ten years, the SCSL – the first “hybrid” court to combine international and national staff – indicted 13 individuals, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor, the first sitting African head of state to be indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.    
On International Justice Day, July 17th, ICTJ looks at the legacy of the Special Court for Sierra Leone through the voices of those to whom its work was most important: the citizens of Sierra Leone.

In April 2012, its Trial Chamber found Taylor guilty on 11 charges of planning, aiding and abetting crimes committed by rebel forces in Sierra Leone – and sentenced him to 50 years in prison. His case is now under appeal.

The Special Court has brought a measure of justice for victims, and most Sierra Leoneans have a positive view of the court, according to surveys. Its trials have been an opportunity for citizens to learn the truth about what happened during the conflict, and its courtrooms have provided a legal forum for hundreds of victims to come forward and tell their stories.

Still, the court has been criticized for prosecuting a relatively small number of perpetrators and for failing to provide reparations to victims and their families, many of whom continue to suffer the terrible effects of the conflict.

“Many of us we are pleased when the verdict was passed at The Hague [against Charles Taylor]. But still much needs to be done to address the needs of persons who were amputated during the war,” says Mohammed Bah.

On International Justice Day, ICTJ recognizes the contributions of the SCSL to Sierra Leone’s own transition from conflict, and to the larger project of international justice as a whole.