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Justice in Sierra Leone: delivering on different levels

Written by Lisa Denney

Today Sierra Leone’s Special Court, set up to prosecute those most responsible for the atrocities committed in the 1991-2002 civil war, found former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Special Court will undoubtedly have an impact on the post-conflict landscape in Sierra Leone and, of course, sets important precedents in international law and holding political leaders to account. But its short-term nature, limited scope and overwhelming ‘foreignness’ means its will have less effect on most Sierra Leoneans than reform of the country’s legal systems (both formal and informal) – which will remain long after the white four wheel drives and international staff have departed.

This makes the vast difference in the money spent on the Special Court and the Sierra Leonean judiciary worrying. The Special Court, established in 2002, has cost over USD 300 million to prosecute nine individuals from the Revolutionary United Front, Civil Defence Forces and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. In 2002, the year the Special Court was established, the total payroll of Sierra Leone’s judiciary was approximately USD 215,000. In 2007, the entire budget for the Government of Sierra Leone was USD 414 million, of which less than one per cent was spent on the judiciary – less than USD 4 million. While substantial donor funds have been directed to justice-related programmes in post-conflict Sierra Leone, the vast majority of these resources have been mobilised for high level, international law efforts like the Special Court, rather than local-level initiatives.

This bias is particularly striking given that most Sierra Leoneans rely on non-state, local-level justice providers: it has been estimated that 80% of disputes in fragile states are resolved through informal mechanisms, such as chiefs, secret societies and trade associations. Donors increasingly acknowledge the importance of such actors in fragile states, but find it hard to translate this insight into actual programming. In order to comprehensively reform security and justice sectors in fragile states, donors need to engage at the non-state, as well as state level.

One reason why donors have shied away from engaging with the non-state security and justice actors is domestic politics – partly related to fears about spending tax payer’s money on individuals or organisations (like chiefs and secret societies) who sometimes engage in dubious practices. But these concerns don’t really stack up, given that donors frequently provide assistance to states that violate basic rights. In fact, the rationale for DFID’s security sector reforms in Sierra Leone was to reform those elements of the state security sector that violate human rights. The same case can be made for working with non-state actors.

However, donors will need different skills, capacities and operating procedures to support (and not undermine) informal justice providers. They also need to accept that programmes involving the non-state are likely to be small scale and highly localised, without the opportunities for nationwide roll-out. For instance, community reconciliation practices often draw upon local spiritual beliefs that are particular to specific regions of Sierra Leone and cannot be transferred outside of those contexts. The point is that there are local-level practices that donor assistance might support in some way – not that the solution to societal problems lies in one small community, ready to be scaled-up countrywide.

I set out four rules to help donors engage more often and more effectively with informal security and justice providers in a recent briefing paper.

While the international community is closely watching the outcome of the high level formal justice processes underway in the Special Court, a thought should be spared for the ongoing neglect of non-state security at the local level, which affects the lives of Sierra Leoneans on a daily basis. Indeed, most Sierra Leoneans have had to resolve grievances with community members from the civil war through informal mechanisms, without the judges, robes and new court rooms that international formal legal processes have attracted.