Interview with with Rosalind Shaw, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University, USA.*
By Janet Anderson, The Hague
Sierra Leone and Liberia experimented with very different paths to justice – restorative with truth commissions and retributive with the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) trials. How do local communities see this, following the Trial Chamber’s final conviction against former Liberian president Charles Taylor two weeks ago?
Concepts of justice shift a lot, depending especially on the security situation. I was working in Sierra Leone close to and after the end of the war. At that time probably the most important concern was security rather than justice. Within communities, justice meant being able to send their children to school, being able to feed themselves. And so they were terrified of the courts provoking some kind of retaliation, some kind of revenge by relatives of those who were prosecuted. Justice was very much entangled with peace.
So people had a sense that the courts could perpetuate a cycle of punishment and revenge?
Exactly. People regarded court cases as potentially violent things that create winners and losers in which the winner takes all. People saw them as potentially dangerous. Foday Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front rebels had been imprisoned in Pademba road jail in Freetown in the 1970’s. He never forgot it. People now remember this. So when they hear talk about how prosecutions combat impunity and prevent the recurrence of violence, they think about Foday Sankoh, who died during his trial at the Special Court in 2003 and think, “well it didn’t happen then.”
And how about Taylor’s trial?
There is also the contrast between the view that we’ve prosecuted Charles Taylor, the big mastermind and the over-simplification that that tends to produce – that this was the blood diamond trial. And on the other hand, the broader social and economic injustice that formed one of the roots of the war, going back even before the war. This was due to both government corruption and an extremely gerontocratic and patriarchal rural society in which young people felt marginalised and from which they tried to escape. Young people played such a major part in the war – yes they were abducted, but many of them felt there was a political agenda that exploited their experience of marginalisation without offering real change. But that long-term structural violence before the war is ignored when the emphasis is on justice as a process of prosecution, specifically the prosecution of just a few individuals.
Were there other misunderstandings?
People also look at the cost of judging 10 individuals in the context of the country they live in, which comes regularly at the bottom of the UN’s human development index. I think that Charles Taylor’s trial cost around 200 million dollars. And people view justice in terms of economic justice and ask, “where’s our justice?” Although the Sierra Leoneans I have spoken to are happy to have seen Taylor prosecuted, it’s problematic to view this trial as now drawing a line under the conflict and say, “now we can all have closure.”
What else has been happening on the ground?
There have been a number of interesting local level community-owned processes. One, called Fambul Tok (Family Talk), began in 2008 in Sierra Leone, that really focuses on relationships between victims and perpetrators within communities. This was an initiative of an extremely courageous and imaginative human rights activist John Caulker. He wanted to bring a different kind of justice than that which the Special Court offered with its multi-million dollar budget. Fambul Tok focuses on bringing together members of community and getting them to talk after several months of preparation. There’s an event by the bonfire in which people are encouraged to come forward to tell their stories, confess and apologise. There’s also a lot of follow-up afterwards, which was a missing feature in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Special Court targeted a few key leaders, leaving many individuals untouched.
Are people still talking about justice within their communities?
It’s ambivalent – the question of these lower level perpetrators. Most of the people I spoke to in northern Sierra Leone felt if you are going to prosecute anyone it’s right to prosecute the big ones. But other people wanted not necessarily prosecution, but some kind of re-balancing process involving these lower level perpetrators. In particular, people did not want to see them integrated into the armed forces. What was especially horrifying was seeing someone who had tortured or killed others’ family members once again in a position of militarised authority.
If the ending of the Charles Taylor trial and the ending of prosecutions doesn’t bring closure in Sierra Leone, what now?
Looking back in order to look forward is important. The priority is to define justice more broadly, in terms of economic and social justice and to make sure Sierra Leone’s youth and children are well served. Right now youth unemployment is something like 40% and that needs to be addressed. Otherwise the same conditions that contributed to the war will be perpetuated.
(*) Co-author of “Localising Transitional Justice”, with Lars Waldorf and Pierre Hazan.