The 26 April 2012 was a day of celebration for many people in Sierra Leone. They celebrated the verdict passed by the special criminal tribunal in The Hague in the case against the former warlord and former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor. The euphoria was palpable, said Ibrahim Tommy, Director of the Sierra Leone human rights' organisation, Centre for Accountability and the Rule of Law (CARL), of the mood that dominated the country's capital, Freetown. After a trial that ran for several years, the verdict met the demands for justice and accountability that many war victims had called for. According to Tommy, this is especially important for women who, until this time, had been excluded from reintegration and development programmes. Many women who had been raped or sexually enslaved during the war continue to be heavily traumatised, are impoverished and excluded from society. In Tommy’s estimation, the verdict will help them to better overcome the atrocities they have suffered. In the end, Taylor was brought to justice for planning, aiding and abetting rape and sexual slavery.
The human rights activist, Ibrahim Tommy, followed an invitation issued by the Gunda Werner Institute in the hbf to visit Berlin early July to attend an event on 4.7.2012 (link), together with the legal expert and representative of the Women's Initiative for Gender Justice, Katharine Orlovsky, to discuss the women- and gender-political backgrounds as well as the consequences of the verdict in Sierra Leone.
The civil war in Sierra Leone
This tropical country with close to five million inhabitants was beset by an extremely brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002: over 250,000 women and girls were raped; at least 120,000 people were killed or died as a consequence of the war. 500,000 people were forced to flee; over 300 villages and 80% of all state institutions such as health care centres and schools were destroyed. Even before war broke out, the infrastructure of Sierra Leone, a small West-African coastal country, was, at best, rudimentary in spite of its great abundance of diamonds. As far back as in the 1980s, rampant corruption, poverty, malnutrition as well as high maternal and infant mortality rates all contributed to the country's structural problems. During the many years of civil war, over 72,000 young men and people were forced to fight in competing guerrilla groups, with around one-third of them women and girls. On frequent occasions, the combatants were press-ganged, forced to kill and were sexually abused by the commanders.
Sexualised violence – a war strategy for Taylor
Ibrahim Tommy described how sexualised violence was used as a war strategy: the violent criminals and those ordering violence wanted to systematically terrorise the civilian population, to force the inhabitants of entire parts of the country to flee and they wanted to conquer resource-rich regions. Tommy pointed out that both women and men were victims of violent acts, with women still having to overcome multiple traumas today.
The Special Court that was convened in The Hague for security reasons found Charles Taylor, in his capacity as warlord and former president of Liberia, guilty of having ordered sexualised violence to be committed in the neighbouring country of Sierra Leone. During the cross-border civil war, guerrilla groups supported by Liberia committed the most serious of human rights violations.
Taylor's trial followed on from trials that had already been held in Freetown against guerrilla leaders. Tommy described in vivid terms that the trials had caused great irritation and numerous discussions in the country. For example, the charges brought against the individual defendants varied greatly and four of the thirteen accused died in the course of the trials. Only seven were convicted of sexualised war crimes; these were commanders of the militia groups of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (ARFC). By contrast, leaders of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), who had also fought against the government in Sierra Leone, did not have to face charges for war-related sexualised crimes even though their units had also committed such violent crimes.
The Taylor verdict – a sign that impunity towards war-related sexualised crimes is being counteracted
Tommy stated that social reconciliation has been hampered due to the fact that the criminal trials took place at virtually the same time as the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Numerous perpetrators therefore refused to give testimony before the Commission. They feared that they would be prosecuted for their crimes. Many reasons why the violence occurred remain uncovered. Contrary to the widespread belief that, out of shame, rape victims would be more likely to hold their tongue, Tommy reported that many rape victims were absolutely willing to speak about the cruelty they had suffered, especially since the offences had openly taken place in his home country. This is why victims and survivors had spoken out during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he said, adding that, by contrast, the offenders did not help to clarify how or why the frequently ordered acts of violence occurred. According to Tommy, this has even gone some way to preventing reconciliation between victims and perpetrators.
In Tommy's view, the Taylor verdict is thus all the more important for Sierra Leone, adding that it marks a significant step towards counteracting impunity towards war crimes and is in keeping with the sense of justice sought after by victims and survivors. He went on to say that it was also a warning sign for politicians that they should avoid violence during elections as the International Criminal Court would prosecute those responsible for politically motivated excessive acts of violence.
Sexualised violence – combating a social taboo
Tommy emphasised that sexualised violence is to be seen in social continuity. Thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and court trials, sexualised violence and the humiliation of women in the context of civil war have been openly addressed in Sierra Leone for the first time. Even before the civil war, these acts of violence had been widespread but vehemently tabooed, and the sufferers had no forums to make these public, said Tommy.
As a human rights expert, Tommy reported that, in the current post-conflict society, Sierra Leone attaches great importance to non-governmental organisations, which, as a lobby for victims’ interests continue to take action against gender-based violence. This includes the Centre for Accountability and the Rule of Law (CARL) which he runs. Among other things, the Centre is dedicated to seeing justice served at the local courts following the newly passed laws. Here, Tommy highlighted the rape law passed in 2007 as a positive step. He reported that the problem is that judges often dismiss cases as supposedly being family matters that should be settled out of court, adding that the few judges in the rural areas are also overworked and have internalised traditional rape myths and gender stereotypes. For this reason, CARL, among other things, trains trial observers. A goal: men should also learn to have empathy for the victims and ensure fair trials. Tommy and his fellow campaigners are also lobbying politicians to get the government to pass further legislative reforms on women's and human rights.
Lessons learned for international criminal court trials
Katharine Orlovsky, a legal expert from The Hague who observes the work of the ICC on behalf of the Women's Initiative for Gender Justice, drew conclusions from the Taylor trial and verdict for how survivors of violent crimes will be treated before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. She outlined the measures that are needed to support female witnesses who want to testify against those accused of committing sexualised crimes. These include both legal and psychological support as well as witness protection in the victims' country of origin. Like Tommy, she emphasised the willingness and often the desire of survivors of violent crimes to speak about the cruelty they had suffered to make sure that perpetrators are prosecuted. She added, however, that they are frequently denied the right platform to do so and that, above all, witness examinations by the defence especially, but also by the judges, occur without their having sufficient understanding of the underlying problems and behavioural patterns of the survivors. The gender expert believes that the Taylor trial, as indeed other trials before it, showed that the International Criminal Court in The Hague must step up its efforts to establish an environment for female witnesses that prevents them suffering renewed traumatisation. She added that it was also necessary to improve public relations on the aims, means and limitations of such international trials in the respective post-war countries so as to avoid misinformation.
Yet, for all its weaknesses in concrete statements: Orlovsky also believes that the verdict, which Taylor is seeking to appeal, represents a milestone in international criminal justice. For the first time ever, a former head of state has been convicted for sexualised war crimes.
The improvement measures – another point that the activist referred to – require resources, above all money.
It is therefore all the more ominous that the German Government has announced that it will be cutting its funding to the International Criminal Court by ten percent. Those seeking to put an end to impunity towards war criminals and to bring human rights to fruition should not allow the capacity to act of a painstakingly established institution with a great impact on post-war societies to fall victim to a short-sighted austerity diktat.