Sierra Leone and Cambodia

24 July 2006 at 20:55 | 560 views

"The Sierra Leone special court will at least provide the testimonies of victims and perpetrators,showing how a country can implode. It will really be of value only if we, the international community, take note next time we see the warning smoke."

By Aminatta Forna

A symbolic event took place in Phnom Penh yesterday. Seventeen Cambodian and 13 international judges were sworn in as part of a UN-backed tribunal to try members of the Khmer Rouge responsible for the deaths of up to 1.7 million people in the 1970s.

I was a teenager when images of the killing fields were first shown. I remember the chilling resonance of the phrase, the Year Zero; the hundreds of thousands force-marched out of the cities. I remember too that it was the first time I became aware that such terrible deeds were taking place in my lifetime. At my school we all asked our teachers the same question: why didn’t anybody do anything? Now, 30 years on, having watched my own country, Sierra Leone, go through a civil war, I know the answer: because nobody ever does until it is too late. True, in Sierra Leone’s case Britain did finally, and to some effect, send a unit of soldiers in 2000, but by then thousands were dead and thousands more maimed.

Four years later, amid much fanfare, the international community created a special court for Sierra Leone, to try those perpetrators of the civil conflict. But within a short time, the Special Court found itself the target of a stream of criticism. Though it had been established to try those "who bear most responsibility" for the violence, the men indicted by the court were clearly no more than second-tier lieutenants. Foday Sankoh, the leader of the rebels, was dead; Charles Taylor, until then still president of the neighbouring state of Liberia, cut a deal with Nigeria and went to live in opulent asylum there. Other key leaders were executed, allegedly by Taylor. Without them, the trial of the 11 indicted men felt hollow and pointless.

Secondly, the court was mandated only to try violations that occurred after November 1996. Not far back enough, in the minds of many local people, who felt that the true perpetrators were the leaders of the corrupt regimes of the 1970s. Similarly, the Cambodian court will only apply to crimes committed after 1975 and before 1979, leaving those - including, some say, the United States’ Henry Kissinger - who created the climate which allowed the Khmer Rouge to flourish entirely unaccountable. The choice of which former members of the Khmer Rouge to try may be decided simply on the basis of who is still alive to be tried, and human rights groups are already warning against placing all the blame on a select few perpetrators.

Even those in Sierra Leone who supported the special court’s aims balked at the amount being spent - $32m (£17m). This is a country with virtually no healthcare, proper sanitation, running water or electricity. The published salaries of special court staff included per diems of over $100, and the sight of employees at play in the smart hotels and restaurants of the capital did little to win the hearts and minds of average Sierra Leonians. The Cambodian tribunal is already set to spend $56m, in a country where 4.5 million people live on less than a dollar a day and malnutrition afflicts over a third of the population.

If international justice is to do more than allay western guilt over its own inertia in the face of the murder of millions of people, it must be accompanied by genuine undertakings not to allow such atrocities again. The Sierra Leone special court will at least provide the testimonies of victims and perpetrators,showing how a country can implode. It will really be of value only if we, the international community, take note next time we see the warning smoke.

Last time I was in Sierra Leone, in March, a friend telephoned to say Charles Taylor - who had finally been extradited from Nigeria as a result of the efforts for Liberia’s charismatic new president, Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf - was rumoured to be flying in that day. He suggested I stay off the streets. Of course, I did nothing of the sort. I drove down to the special court to see what was going on. Later that evening crowds gathered to watch Taylor being brought in. By then I was at a party on the terraces of the British High Commission and watched the three helicopters fly in overhead. It was a dramatic moment. The special court had got its man. For me, it was worth it, after all.

But for the people of Cambodia there can be no such moment of victory. Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, died peacefully in 1998, unrepentant to the end.

Credit: The Guardian, July 4, 2006

About the author: Aminatta Forna(photo) is the daughter of the late Dr. Mohamed Sorie Forna. Dr. Forna was executed together with Ibrahim Taqi and others by Siaka Stevens’ APC government in 1975.