So much for international humanitarian law and justiceâ€¦
On 3 June 2004, the UN-created Special Court for Sierra Leone began prosecution of those it alleged bear "the greatest responsibility" for war crimes, violations of humanitarian law and related offenses during Sierra Leone's decade-long dirty war. It was a "solemn occasion," said the court's American prosecutor, David Crane, whose many shortcomings surely does not include modesty or under-statement. Crane summoned all of mankind to "once again [assemble] before an international tribunal to begin the sober and steady climb upwards toward the towering summit of justice." Waxing poetic---rather in the manner of high-pitched tele-evangelists of the American south---Crane declared: "The path will be strewn with the bones of the dead, the moans of the mutilated, the cries of agony of the tortured, echoing down into the valley of death below. Horrors beyond the imagination will slide into this hallowed hall as this trek upward comes to a most certain and just conclusion."
The prosecutor must surely be thinking of the depredations of Foday Sankoh, the nihilistic and self-adoring ex-corporal whose petty army, known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), terrorized Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2000 by crudely mutilating civilians and burning down towns? No. Sankoh died peacefully last year. Charles Taylor, the buccaneering Liberian thug-president who helped set up the RUF after unleashing a catastrophic war on his own country? Not a chance. Taylor is hundreds of miles away from the court, in comfortable exile in the Nigerian port city of Calabar. In fact, what inspired Crane's pithy eloquence was Sam Hinga Norman, a former Sierra Leone government minister and the putative leader of the Civil Defence Force (CDF), a group of civilians who organized to liberate villages overran by the RUF, keep the bloodthirsty rebel force in check, and restore a democratically-elected government which had been overthrown by the rebels and rogue government soldiers. Bathos is too limited a word to describe this grandly demented exercise in how not to pursue international justice: even Joseph Conrad, with that cold eye for heroic absurdity and hypocrisy, would not have invented this.
The notion of international humanitarian law is still inchoate, evolving. But one is sure that two rules of justice will, at least in the minds of decent people, remain valid. The first is that a justice system should be fairly sure that the guilty is held to account; and the second is that a justice system should be absolutely certain that the innocent is not punished. We know that this has not always been the case. When the baronet's sister in Dicken's novel exclaims, on hearing of the murder of the baronet, 'Far better hang wrong fellow than no fellow!' we are reminded that a certain vengefulness and zealous desire to punish others have always underpinned the modern justice system. Indeed we are reminded, as George Bernard Shaw cynically commented, that the wrong fellow is in some circumstances the right fellow to hang.
Crane's charge sheet against Norman and the two other CDF leaders---Moinina Fofana and Kondewa--- is a long one. The first part is largely forensic: it describes, in colourful details, the conditions and ideas that supposedly guided the activities of the CDF. The purpose of the CDF, we learn, was "to use any means necessary to defeat the RUF and AFRC [the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, which overthrew the government of President Tejan Kabbah in May 1997] forces and to gain and exercise control over Sierra Leone territory." The CDF sought to do this by the "complete elimination of the RUF/AFRC, its supporters, sympathizers, and anyone who did not actively resist the RUF/AFRC occupation of Sierra Leone." Specific acts of war crimes are all limited to about the end of 1997 to about April 1998---when the fighting against the rebels forces was at its most intense---and they are alleged to have included "practices of elimination" of the RUF/AFRC in Tongo Field, Kenema, Bo and Koribondo. These included "human sacrifices and cannibalism." There is also the conscription of children below the age of 15; "multiple attacks on Tongo Field and the surrounding area and towns, during which the Kamajors unlawfully killed or inflicted serious bodily harm and serious physical suffering on an unknown number of civilians and captured enemy combatants;" the killing of "collaborators", including "an unknown number of police officers" in Kenema by the Kamajors on 15 February 1998; and the so-called Black December operation, in which the Kamajors allegedly killed "an unknown number of civilians" in 1997.
Crane noted, "Despite the obvious political dimension to this conflictâ€¦ these individuals are indicted for those crimes, the most grievous of actsâ€¦" adding that each of the accused "acted individually and in concert with subordinates to carry out this plan, purpose or design." We are solemnly informed, in case we still do not get it, that "The light of this new day-today-and the many tomorrows ahead are a beginning of the end to the life of that beast of impunity, which howls in frustration and shrinks from the bright and shining spectre of the law. The jackals whimper in their cages certain of their impending demise. The law has returned to Sierra Leone and it stands with all Sierra Leoneans against those who seek their destruction."
Even the great scribes of the Old Testament would not better this. But how valid is the implication that the CDF leaders should even be remotely considered as "most responsible" for the recently-ended war and its almost unique atrocities? And how do we react to this odd American awakening to the necessity to address impunity and rights violations around the world?
LIKE THE RUF, LIKE THE CDF?
Sierra Leone's war started in March 1991 when a self-adoring former army corporal and photographer, Foday Saybanah Sankoh, led a petty army---of mainly Liberian rebels and a few Sierra Leonean insurgents---from territories controlled by then Liberian warlord Charles Taylor into southern and eastern Sierra Leone. Sankoh had trained in Libya with Taylor, and he fought alongside the Liberian from the start of Liberia's civil war in 1989 until intervention by West African troops, known as ECOMOG, led to a bloody stalemate in late 1990. It was then that Taylor opened another front, so to speak, in Sierra Leone by launching the Sankoh-led Revolutionary United Front rebels. The new conflict, like the one in Liberia, was characterized by vandalism and terror, and soon enough it became evident that pillage---of mainly the country's forest resources and diamond mines---was a far greater motivation than politics. Sierra Leone's feeble and corrupt army almost imploded, and a large number of its members collaborated with the RUF. Hundreds of thousands of the country's rural population were displaced by the fighting. It was out of this dreary displacement that the civil defence force, the Kamajors, mobilizing from makeshift camps, and drawing upon the traditional coherence and resources of a putative hunters' guild, organized to fight back the rebels and reclaim their lost villages and towns. They soon became the only bulwark against the complete over-running of the country by the RUF---and the main saviors of Sierra Leone's new experiment in democracy.
No one can dispute that the Kamajors, an inchoate group lacking logistical support, committed excesses in its fight against the RUF and to protect the general civil population. But then the demented nature of the RUF's total warfare ensured that in order to effectively challenge them one could hardly have avoided using brutal tactics. The mealy-mouthed argument---so vigorously enunciated, with ringing and seductive familiarity, by the Special Court's prosecutors---that those combating the depredations of the rebels should not have themselves been drawn into similar excesses flows from a well known pathology: the complacent 'humanitarianism' of people from more secure societies, people who in the end do little more than celebrate their own security. When the military theorist Martin van Creveld wrote that prolonged 'low-intensity' conflicts, like that which occurred in Sierra Leone, always ensures that combatants on both sides would look and act in the same way, he was stating an objective fact, not explaining away state or civil brutality.
What is striking about the war crimes trials going on in Sierra Leone at the moment is that, defying comprehension and every form of decent sensibility, the star accused is not a member of the RUF or one of its foreign backers but Hinga Norman, the man who provided inspiration and leadership for the civil defence forces. It simply beggars belief. One commentator on the issue, Abdul Bangura, has even gone so far as to accuse Crane of racism for this suspect failure of discernment as well as for making a number of stock statements. This is an extraordinary charge; it is far from the truth. Crane is no racist. What Crane represents is an irresistible old tragicomedy, the parable of simple and very good-natured people who substitute doctrine for knowledge, and who in the process cause great damage in good conscience. In the past they could have appeared as missionaries in colonial outposts, but they are really best represented in fiction. Conrad, in one of his famous stories---set in the bloodstained Belgian Congo---has his narrator speak of "the outraged law" coming from beyond the seas to a helpless people who had been labeled "criminals," the law appearing to them as "an insoluble mystery from the sea." This may be too cynical in this context: horrible crimes were committed in Sierra Leone, and the effort to account for them is a noble one. Mr. Pyle in Graham Greene's novel appears more appropriate: the "quiet American", a decent and very simple man, seeking to apply some crackpot theories he had learnt from a book, causes great pain with his simple mind assured that it is all for a good cause.
I do not suggest this because Crane is American, a former Pentagon lawyer. But there is something to be said about the fact that the country which is so aggressive in resisting the efforts to institutionalize an international justice mechanism is the chief backer of the limited and 'hybrid' experiment that is the Sierra Leone Special Court. But then again this suggest an interesting line of speculation but is otherwise irrelevant to the point of this article, which is that in aggressively prosecuting the CDF leaders the court may not only be doing a grave injustice, it may also be doing a grave damage to Sierra Leone's future ability to defend itself if such predatory groups as the RUF were to emerge again. Who will emerge to lead the effort given the appalling example that has been made of Norman?
As for the charges, well the trial has begun and it would be in very bad taste to examine them here. But one can't help observing how suggestive the inclusion of 'cannibalism' is. The narrator in the Conrad story referred to seems obsessed with the notion of Africans as cannibals. This was a strong motif in colonial self-justification. The British seemed to have been particularly determined to have it suppressed in Africa. But the testimony of a former British colonial Acting Attorney General in Sierra Leone long long ago is worth keeping in mind. He had heard many stories of cannibal rituals in the country, he said, and had even heard vivid descriptions of cannibal acts by supposed eye-witnesses. But "No District Commissioner has ever been able to get hold" of the instruments, knives and other paraphernalia that were supposed to be integral to the rituals. In other words, he found no evidenceâ€¦
But then, unfortunately, the myth stuck. Such may be the sad legacy of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Crane's eloquence notwithstanding: "The ghosts of thousands of the murdered dead stand among us. They cry out for a fair and transparent trial-to let the world know what took place here, here in Sierra Leone. The tears of the maimed, the mutilated, and the violated will dampen these walls. These victims, their families, their towns, their districts-their country ask all of us here for a just accounting for the agony of those ten long years in the valley of death." 'Just accounting': that is not going to happen until the Nigerian President Obasanjo hands over Charles Taylor to the court, something he---another daunting mystery---seemed determined not to do.