But war hurts more – OpenDemocracy


Sierra Leone, torn apart by a decade of brutal civil war, desperately needs the catharsis that truth and reconciliation can bring. But the attempt to establish this process has encountered problems – confusion about the role of the two different commissions, a lack of public engagement and the non-compliance of critical witnesses. What can the international community do to help?

KOIDU, SIERRA LEONE – The sign outside the Fachima (native Kono for “peace”) Hall in the eastern Sierra Leone town of Koidu, capital of Kono District, says: “Lets rebuild Sierra Leone”. Or, rather, it would, were it intact. The top half of the sign lies in a muddy pool at the foot of the signpost, awaiting repair or replacement by the Pakistani Battalion of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil) stationed only 300 metres away.

This may be a fitting image for a country whose reconstruction and stability is not only unsure, but reliant on external support – financially in the form of donor support amounting to almost 80% of the national budget for 2002, militarily in the form of 13,074 Unamsil troops.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for Sierra Leone is an integral part of this national rebuilding and post-conflict stabilisation. It originates in the controversial Lomé Peace Accords of July 1999, which infamously brought the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader and now Special Court for Sierra Leone indictee Foday Sankoh into government as deputy prime minister, and handed a blanket amnesty to all combatants. The TRC was formally established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act of February 2000.

According to Article 6 (1) of this act, the TRC’s core mandate “is to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, from the beginning of the Conflict in 1991 to the signing of the Lomé Peace Agreement; to address impunity, to respond to the needs of the victims, to promote healing and reconciliation and to prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered”.

The TRC sits alongside the Special Court for Sierra Leone as a new format for transitional justice. The latter deals with those who are deemed to have the prime responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and violations of international human rights law since the signing of the Abidjan Accords on 30 November 1996 – hence the exclusively high-profile and leadership background of the indictees. The TRC has a broader mandate – to address, but not punish, violations and abuses that occurred from the outbreak of war in 1991 to 7 July 1999.

After initial logistical, financial and administrative problems, the TRC is now well into the main body of its work. The first public hearings took place in Freetown on 14 April 2003; after four months of work, 9,000 statements had been gathered from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea and Nigeria. Hearings are divided into two types: thematic hearings held in Freetown, dealing with specific issues and groups; and district hearings, which are held concurrently every second week in two district capitals and feature testimony from local victims and perpetrators.

Freetown hearings

The Freetown hearings involve high-profile figures – such as political party representatives, NGO delegates, government ministers, diplomatic representatives, leaders and prominent members of organisations who fought in the war. In part, this reflects the nature of the war as fought; behind the coups and international interventions in Freetown itself, much of the fighting took place in rural areas to the south and east of the country.

Each testimony, in Freetown or outside, is generally followed by a question-and-answer session with the Commissioners present. TRC proceedings are carried live on national radio, and edited highlights go out nightly on Sierra Leone Broadcasting Services (SLBS) TV.

The hearings have lifted the profile of the TRC – which had been overshadowed somewhat by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. During 2002, while the institutions were still in their preparatory phase, there was some public confusion over their respective roles and purpose; but as the two institutions have started to work publicly, each has begun to acquire its own distinct identity.

This has helped the TRC clarify its purpose – especially in rural areas, where fear remained that evidence given in statements would be used by the Special Court and hence the witness or statement-giver would become complicit in a legal case involving an accused war criminal. This would expose the author to retaliation – a natural fear given the events of the previous decade in Sierra Leone, and one not yet entirely overcome. Given that Sierra Leone has very poor communications infrastructure and an illiteracy rate of more than 70%, the TRC has had to battle against long odds to disseminate information about its work.

Now, the TRC is completing the hearings phase of its operation, after which the Commissioners and a research panel will sit down to write a report (due in October 2003) based on the statements and testimonies given. The Sierra Leonean government is obliged, where possible, to implement “faithfully and timeously” – in the words of TRC Chairman Bishop Joseph Humper – the recommendations of the report in follow-up legislation. Hence the TRC will not only serve as a platform for a sort of national catharsis, but will also see its work have a direct impact on how Sierra Leone’s formal adjustment to peace evolves.

The two TRCs

There seem, then, to be two discrete TRC’s in operation in Sierra Leone. This, indeed, was partly the intention; but what was not intended was the nature of the difference. Public reaction to the TRC has been lukewarm, at least if attendance figures in the capital are an accurate guide. On average, only a handful of people (usually about twenty) show up at the Freetown hearings; and this even on days where prominent figures such as RUF-P secretary-general Jonathan Kposowa testify.

Even more dishearteningly, a straw poll of the audience would doubtless reveal that the majority are themselves journalists and non-governmental organisation (NGO) representatives. This is a striking contrast to the well-attended district hearings. The hearings I attended in Koidu required local police to do some modest crowd control work, to prevent the hall from being swamped.

The reasons for this contrast are subtle. Freetown is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city, and its people see the war as something of an imposition by rural fanatics (or so the stereotypes go). More people have access to print and electronic media and can follow the proceedings via these means, than is the case in rural areas or district capitals. The district hearings usually feature locally-known victims and perpetrators, focus more on personal experiences and are notably more tactile in their approach.

But one cannot help feeling that a more aggressive promotion campaign would at least capture the attention of the 200 people needed to fill the premises in a capital city of more than one million people. Security reasons mean that the exact identities of witnesses cannot be given out in advance – but that does not preclude arousing the public via the standard means of billboard posters, TV advertisements of the general themes to be examined on a given day, or sloganeering designed to alert the public to the importance of their role in attending the hearings.

How these issues affect the outcome of the TRC remains to be seen. For it to work toward true reconciliation for Sierra Leoneans, much has to be done in areas that lie beyond the direct remit of the TRC – such as controlling corruption, curbing illicit diamond mining and ensuring that Sierra Leone’s police and armed forces are able to function effectively once Unamsil withdraws – a date set provisionally for June 2005.

The TRC, however, can make recommendations to the government on these, and a host of other areas, in its final report. As well as providing the platform for national catharsis and mutual acknowledgement of roles in and blame for the causes and course of the war, and the sufferings of civilians, the TRC can draw on statements to enhance the recommendations it makes – and formalise the ‘truth and reconciliation’ it achieves by official implementation of its recommendations.

Failure to comply

In theory, this is all to the good – practice is proving another matter. Some high-profile witnesses have not appeared as scheduled – including the Attorney-General and minister for justice, Eke Holloway. Meanwhile, Captain Valentine Strasser, leader of the military coup of the National Provisional Ruling Council from 1992-96, did not turn up as arranged, despite a TRC vehicle being sent to his house in Kissy. Subpoena proceedings can be issued should witnesses repeatedly fail to comply with the TRC. Other high-profile witnesses have used the TRC as a political platform – Commission vigilance has led to a number of such offenders re-testifying.

In the longer term, all of this could result in the TRC seeking an extension to its duration – the TRC Act entitles it to ask for an extra six months. Should these high profile witnesses successfully evade the TRC, this may lead to an erosion of credibility reducing the scope of its report and validity of its recommendations, and be seen as a half-truth commission by the Sierra Leonean public.

However, one cannot help thinking that with greater resources and international support, the TRC could operate much more smoothly. But, like the sign outside the Koidu Community Hall, Sierra Leoneans may have to wait for international intervention to ensure that this occurs.

The TRC’s reduced budget stands at $4.5 billion, paid for by donor states and organisations. Funds are managed by the Office for High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and disbursed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Freetown – though neither have any say in the TRC’s agenda.

Some donors make evidence of progress by the TRC – itself dependent on the acquisition of funds – a condition of final payment. The TRC thus finds itself in a catch-22 situation – some donors say show us the work, we’ll show you the money. But the work cannot be done on a shoestring, or a credit note.

Another sign – this one intact and inside the Koidu Community Hall – says “truth hurts, but war hurts more”. The remaining money needed by the TRC will not hurt the pockets of the donors anywhere near as much as an unsuccessful TRC will hurt the long-suffering Sierra Leoneans. As the other sign says, they see the TRC as a means to rebuild their country.

Recalcitrant donors should compare their attitude with that of the Pakistani Battalion in Koidu. As I left Koidu on the last day of hearings there, the broken sign was being fixed by a lone Pakistani soldier, apparently oblivious to the sheeting West African rains. At least Sierra Leone’s reconstruction was being dealt with metaphorically, without the undue expectations from those who contribute from outside. The TRC, vital to the real rebuilding of Sierra Leone, could only benefit from more of that kind of support.

Follow us on Twitter
, , ,