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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ensuring Worldwide Justice




Last fall, in a town near the Sierra Leone capital, I stood amid cheering members of the Revolutionary United Front and watched as their leader, Foday Sankoh, took the podium. Under Sankoh, the RUF had conducted a brutal offensive against government troops and civilians. But a peace accord signed last July by the government and rebels gave full amnesty to Sankoh and his forces for their crimes during the eight-year war.


Sankoh was detained last month in Freetown, and the Sierra Leone government says it intends to prosecute him for illegal diamond trading and for the deaths of 21 demonstrators outside his residence last month. But last October, Sankoh sat placidly onstage with the UN military commander in Sierra Leone and knew the Nigerian peacekeepers in the room would not, could not, touch him.


When Sankoh took the podium, the crowd went wild. "My brothers," he began, reaching out his hands and stroking each palm over the back of the other hand. "You have nothing." His meaning, to the RUF thugs there, couldn't have been clearer: They were getting off scot-free for the atrocities they had committed. In a country where hands have extraordinary symbolism f where the RUF's signature human rights abuse was the amputation of hands f Sankoh's gesture was flabbergasting.


Behind me, I could hear our translator, who had escaped murder by the RUF in its January 1999 Freetown offensive, whisper, "Oh, my God." We had spent the morning interviewing the war's latest victims. We visited a tiny village in the bush where residents no longer slept in their homes because they feared rebel raids at night. Many children had been abducted; several women had been raped.


The UN dignitaries on the podium remained expressionless during Sankoh's speech. But perhaps their stomachs were churning with the same indignation I felt. The moment encapsulated the indefensible listlessness of the international community in the face of Sankoh's crimes.


The United Nations did not sanction the amnesty included in the 1999 accord. But the peace agreement was reached under UN auspices. We at Human Rights Watch, who denounced the amnesty and warned that the accord would fail if the RUF was not brought to justice, were considered impractical spoilers. All sides, it was said, were eager for the war to end, on virtually any terms.


A consensus seems to have developed that Sankoh is a war criminal who should be excluded from power. Now that he's in custody, what should be done with him? Sierra Leone's judicial system, after years of civil war, doesn't have the capacity to prosecute Sankoh. The authorities in Freetown have produced an anemic list of charges against him, probably because some military figures allied with the government also deserve prosecution.


Some observers have suggested a West African regional court prosecute Sankoh. Others propose a hybrid tribunal with local and international judicial experts. Any tribunal should have the resources and legitimacy to mount a strong prosecution.


In the long run, there's one solution for Sankoh's ilk: a permanent international criminal court. Most nations support the treaty setting up such a tribunal; 97 have already signed it. But the United States is still fighting a rearguard action to weaken the court, fearing it might try to prosecute U.S. citizens.


The international criminal court is years away, and it won't have retroactive jurisdiction to pursue Sankoh. The UN should set up an independent tribunal, such as those for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, able to investigate and prosecute all the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone. The Security Council's permanent members must support such a court for it to have the wherewithal to conduct proper prosecutions.


This will be politically difficult and take time. Sierra Leone is fading from the front pages, and the Security Council isn't eager to undertake another tribunal. But the country cannot be stabilized without a full-throttle, international effort to prosecute its tragic crimes. Outsiders have the ability to make a difference f they need only the political will.


Carroll Bogert is the communications director at Human Rights Watch. She contributed this comment to The Washington Post.