Mon, 21 Aug 2000

Questions remain over UN special mandate

By Ursula Ruessmann

FRANKFURT (DPA): The United Nations Security Council has decided to set up an international tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the horrors which took place during the civil war in Sierra Leone, but before the court can hear the first cases, a number of bridges still have to be crossed.

Human rights organizations have warned against letting Sierra Leone's government make the court into a tool for taking revenge upon its opponent, the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front.

The country's 4.4. million population suffered through nine years of bloody civil war during which thousands were killed or maimed and thousands of children were used as soldiers. At times, as many as 1.5 million persons were displaced by the war.

The UN resolution leaves unclear exactly what form the tribunal which will process these crimes will take, but UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has until mid-September to work out the details with the Freetown government.

The UN resolution only gives a general outline of the tribunal, saying that the special court should not only look at war crimes and crimes against humanity and against international law but also breaches of Sierra Leonean law.

The court will have jurisdiction over cases against those who bear most responsibility for the horrific crimes as well as those whose systematic atrocities endangered the peace process.

The judges and prosecutors will be from Sierra Leone and from abroad to ensure that the court demonstrates the "neutrality, independence and credibility" which the UN resolution demands. The court will probably sit in Sierra Leone.

The government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah has welcomed the resolution and promised its full cooperation; nevertheless, Kofi Annan has a tough round of negotiations ahead of him. In June, for example, Kabbah proposed that a court be set up which would only prosecute the RUF rebels loyal to Foday Sankoh.

Sankoh had been a member of Kabbah's cabinet since the signing of the peace agreement in the summer of 1999. His RUF rebels, however, took up arms again in May and temporarily took 500 UN peacekeepers hostage.

Sankoh was arrested in Sierra Leone and is well aware of how dangerous the wrath of President Kabbah and the international community can be. However, this is precisely the reason human rights groups are worried.

Peter Takirambudde, an expert on African affairs for the U.S. organization, Human Rights Watch, has criticized the fact that diplomats continue to talk about a "Sankoh resolution" -- as if Sankoh were the only one responsible for the widespread war crimes carried out in the country.

He also said that the Sierra Leonean authorities should not be allowed to have too great an influence upon the tribunal or there would be a danger of "political manipulation."

Amnesty International (AI) accused several other groups, in addition to the RUF, of serious human rights violations -- the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), the Civil Defense Forces (CDF) militia as well as members of the military -- and has called for their prosecution.

This could turn out to be rather difficult. The AFRC under the leadership of Johnny Paul Koroma joined forces with the RUF for a short period and must be considered responsible for the murder of a number of civilians and numerous cases of rape.

Today, however, Koroma is a member of Kabbah's government and in fact heads the country's practically ineffective Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The problems associated with prosecuting leaders such as Koroma are obvious.

A further obstacle on the road to justice is actually of the UN's own making. The Lome agreement -- signed by, amongst others, the UN -- grants a general amnesty to all those involved in attacks during the civil war after 1991.

A UN representative later added an amendment stating that, in the opinion of the UN, neither war crimes nor crimes against humanity are covered by the amnesty. In spite of this, the matter of whether or not the UN tribunal can consider crimes which took place before 1999 will be heavily disputed.

There is still the question of what should be done with the rebel and military leaders who now live unmolested in exile. Former military dictator Valentine Strasser, whose 1993-1996 regime has been accused of torture and murder, is now living in Britain, according to press reports, as is Mohammad Bangura, Freetown's minister for information in 1997. The head of the military under Strasser and the man who eventually overthrew him, Julius Maada Bio, fled to the United States.

Amnesty International demanded several weeks ago that British authorities follow the example of the case against Chile's former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet and pursue Strasser. The alternative would be to allow his extradition to face charges in front of the tribunal -- if and when it manages to get off the ground.