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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 14:21 GMT
Bringing justice to Sierra Leone
Fine words abounded when the protocols were signed setting up Sierra Leone's new war crimes court in Freetown.
"The absence of the rule of law creates an atmosphere in which loss of life is not only possible but is accepted and even encouraged.
"In order to have the rule of law we need justice and accountability. This is the role that has been assigned to the UN Special Court".
Thus said Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Sierra Leone, Solomon Berewa, in the company of UN under-secretary for legal affairs, Hans Corell.
The new court should mean the end of criminal impunity, the start of a new chapter in the peace process, and even usher in happiness and prosperity.
But the "absence of the rule of law", to borrow Mr Berewa's phrase, has been almost total in Sierra Leone for the past decade.
It all started in 1991 with an armed incursion by the then little-known rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
The RUF said they were fighting for justice against the corrupt middle class in Freetown.
What the RUF actually precipitated was a series of military coups which was followed by an attempt at democracy without the rebels, yet another coup d'etat, and one of the most brutal wars in Africa.
The RUF gained a reputation for appalling human rights abuses; they specialized in chopping off the hands of their opponents' supporters.
But some of the other actors in the war were little better - especially mutinous soldiers of the Sierra Leone army who at several points during the war joined the rebels.
Now, the evidence of the "absence of the rule of law" is everywhere, from the many thousands of ordinary people who had their limbs hacked off, to widespread corruption in high places.
The UN court - which will take legal precedence over local Sierra Leonean courts - is intended as a symbol that will change all that.
At the practical level the UN Special Court is a new departure in international jurisprudence.
While the courts for Yugoslavia and Rwanda were formed directly by the UN Security Council, the tribunal for Sierra Leone was requested by the government in Freetown and will, in effect, be a hybrid mixture of international and Sierra Leonean law.
The two parts of the court - the main chamber and an Appeals Court - will include a mixture of Sierra Leonean and international judges.
The majority of judges in each case will be internationally appointed by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.
The chief prosecutor will also be a foreign appointment, although most of his or her staff are expected to be Sierra Leonean.
While lawyers in Freetown digest these practical details (and many, lawyer-like, no doubt anticipate profitable briefs at the UN's expense), what most ordinary Sierra Leoneans want to know is who will be prosecuted.
The prime candidate is the jailed rebel leader Foday Sankoh.
He is accused of masterminding the lawless and brutal rise to prominence of the RUF, which almost resulted, in June 2000, in the overthrow of the internationally recognized government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
I understand from legal sources in Freetown that the Sierra Leonean police have been gathering evidence to prosecute Foday Sankoh for several years.
The UN, too, has a direct interest in Mr Sankoh's activities because his followers kidnapped hundreds of UN soldiers in 2000.
This unprecedented humiliation for the international body was only resolved when British troops intervened in the war on the side of Tejan Kabbah.
But when I asked UN under-secretary Hans Corell if Foday Sankoh was in the sights of the court, the senior diplomat said, diplomatically, that this was a question that could only be answered by the yet-to-be-appointed chief prosecutor.
In fact, it would be astonishing if Foday Sankoh were not to be the main, and probably the first, person to be indicted by the UN special court.
A senior United Nations official in Freetown who requested anonymity, told me: "Of course Sankoh will be tried.
"It's one of the main purposes of the court. That man has to go down for many, many years, and preferably never be let out".
This private opinion is one is shared publicly by many Sierra Leoneans who have suffered at the hands of the rebels.
But this is where the court, for all its legal niceties and UN-approved structures, enters the political arena.
However much evidence there is against Mr Sankoh and other members of the RUF - and there is plenty - it is indisputable that this is a court that the UN has been asked to set up by the winners in the war.
The winners - the British-backed Sierra Leone Government - certainly have a good claim to legitimacy, having been elected to office in 1996.
But the reality in Sierra Leone is that many other parties were also guilty of gross human rights abuses.
A few examples are some members of the pro-government militia known as the Civil Defence Force, certain notorious Nigerian soldiers who joined a West African force to protect the Kabbah government, and mutinous members of the Sierra Leone army, which at various times joined the rebels.
Another prominent individual who may be indicted is Major Johnny-Paul Koroma, the army officer who headed the military junta which overthrew Mr Kabbah in 1997.
"Johnny Paul", as he is known in Sierra Leone, is a man with an affable personality who since the fall of the junta has returned to Freetown and become a keen born-again Christian.
To his credit (in the eyes of many Sierra Leoneans), after he lost power he headed a reconciliation body which did much to salve the wounds of the war.
But his indictment may nevertheless be inevitable.
My source in the UN who requested anonymity said: "Johnny Paul has got to be tried.
"He formed an alliance with the RUF when they committed appalling crimes.
Whether Johnny Paul is found guilty or not is of course another question.
The RUF feels that the court is targeting only them.
While this may be justified because they committed most of the crimes, it may be that the court will make - or be forced to make, through international pressure - a decision to indict a wide variety of suspects.
No one doubts the need for justice in Sierra Leone, and the probable need for the international community to help in dispensing it.
A decade of brutal war, with widespread atrocities against civilians, has left a legacy of millions of damaged lives, but also damaged institutions and a damaged national psyche.
"Justice and accountability", to use Solomon Berewa's phrase, have been in short supply in Sierra Leone for the decade since the war began - and even before that during the dictatorial single-party state which took over from the equally dictatorial colonial power, Britain.
Sierra Leoneans, in short, do not have much experience of "Justice and Accountability" from their leaders.
Ten years after the start of the war, Sierra Leone is finally at peace.
But the mindset necessary for "Justice and Accountability" is still in short supply among many Sierra Leonean politicians - and not only the rebel variety.
The men and women from outside Sierra Leone who are about to be appointed to run the UN Special Court may not yet realize the huge aspirations invested in them by the people of Sierra Leone.
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