Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s civil war began in March 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) entered Sierra Leone from Liberia, with the objective of ousting President Joseph Momoh from power. Led by Foday Sankoh, the RUF was established in the late 1980s, when Sierra Leone was under the corrupt and repressive rule of Momoh’s All People’s Congress (“APC”) party. The violence and devastation of the civil war lasted for almost eleven years. The conflict was marked by unrestrained cruelty and appalling brutality. Attacks by the RUF, its allies and opponents often deliberately targeted civilians. As the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) described:

“…Reports emerged of indiscriminate amputations, abductions of women and children, recruitment of children as combatants, rape, sexual slavery, cannibalism, gratuitous killings and wanton destruction of villages and towns. This was a war measured not so much in battles and confrontations between combatants as in attacks upon civilian populations. Its awesome climax was the destruction of much of Freetown in January 1999…”1


The RUF began its offensive by capturing towns on the border with Liberia. By the end of 1991 it had consolidated its positions in certain districts in the east and south of the country. These areas were rich in mineral resources, which the RUF exploited. Doing so afforded them the resources to fund its insurgency. In April 1992, the APC government of President Momoh was ousted through a military coup led by Captain Valentine Strasser who created the National Provisional Ruling Council. The conflict between the Sierra Leonean Army (SLA) and the RUF continued and by 1995 the rebels controlled more districts in the east and the south and continued to make gains. During this time, new parties joined the conflict, including local pro-government militias collectively known as the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), which emerged in the mid-1990s in order to help protect villages from RUF attacks. 

From 1995 to 1996, the SLA, with the assistance of the CDF and other pro-government forces, was able to push back and gain ground in many districts held by the RUF. The conflict settled into a low-intensity conflict with the RUF leading to some believing that the war was over. In January 1996, Strasser was overthrown in a coup by his deputy, Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. The following month, multiparty elections were held under the new constitution and Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was elected president. He signed the Abidjan Peace Accord with the RUF in November 1996, but by early 1997 the deal had unravelled.2

The period that followed was one of great upheaval, which saw the government of President Kabbah ousted in a coup in 1997 by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a military junta made up of disgruntled officers from the SLA. President Kabbah’s government was later reinstated through the intervention of the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) supported by the CDF. In the meantime, there was sustained international pressure on President Kabbah to enter into a peace agreement with the armed opposition groups.

The conflict was eventually concluded by means of a peace process. On 7 July 1999, the parties signed the Lomé Peace Agreement.3 The agreement included, inter alia, a power sharing arrangement with warring parties, amnesties, the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, reparations for victims and a demobilisation and reintegration process for the armed groups. Although blighted by ceasefire violations and continuing human rights abuses, the conflict was officially declared over by President Kabbah on 18 January 2002.4

Commentary & Reports

Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission “Witness to Truth: Final Report of the TRC(TRC: 2004)

The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 2002 with the mandate of producing an impartial and historical report of violations of human rights and international law during the civil war in SierraLeone. The report offers insight into the historical antecedents and causes of the conflict, including its military and political dynamics. It further elaborates on the impact of the conflict on specific groups, particularly on women, children and youths, and examines the relationship between the TRC and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The report provides recommendations to help Sierra Leone reconcile with its past, including the prospect of a reparations programme and the development of a National Vision for Sierra Leone.

Kirsten Ainley “Evaluating the success of transitional justice in Sierra Leone and beyond” (London School of Economics: 2015)

In this text, the Professor Ainley takes a step back to focus on what is meant by ‘success’ when assessing the impacts of transitional justice efforts and to examine the problems involved in evaluating transitional justice. 

Ibrahim Bangura “Leaving Behind the Worst of the Past, Transitional Justice and Prevention in Sierra Leone” (International Centre for Transitional Justice: 2021)

The author argues that while transitional justice has helped Sierra Leone to avoid the recurrence of the worst of its recent past, a more comprehensive approach to sustainable peace and development is needed to address the historical legacies of the conflict and meet the current challenges.This report analyses how transitional justice in Sierra Leone has contributed to prevention and how institutional and other reforms also helped to address the causes of the past violence and catalyse long-term change. At the same time, however, these contributions were limited in terms of reach and implementation. 

Accountability in Sierra Leone

Priorities and challenges for strengthening accountability for international crimes in Sierra Leone

March 1991
29 April 1992
16 January 1996
Feb - Mar 1996
30 November 1996
25 May 1997
February 1998
6 January 1999
7 July 1999
22 October 1999
22 February 2000
14 August 2000
16 January 2002
18 January 2002
5 July 2002
March – September 2003
5 October 2004
29 March 2006
20 June 2007
2 August 2007
25 February 2009
26 April 2012
28 August 2015

Domestic accountability efforts

In the aftermath of the civil war, two important transitional justice mechanisms were established in Sierra Leone. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, born from the Lomé Peace Agreement of July 1999, was mandated, on the one hand, to examine the root causes of the conflict, the roles of various parties to the war and the impact on the victims, and on the other, to provide recommendations that would promote reconciliation and healing.5 The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was established in 2002 following an agreement between the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone to prosecute persons bearing ‘the greatest responsibility’ for international and domestic crimes that had been committed in the country.6 Despite the inclusion of a blanket amnesty provision in the Lomé Peace Agreement, this did not stymie efforts to prosecute perpetrators before the SCSL. It has, however, affected the prosecution of persons before national courts in Sierra Leone. 

The simultaneous operation of the two mechanisms between 2002 and 2004, afforded the first opportunity for criminal prosecutions and truth-telling to be pursued side-by-side. While the relationship between the two institutions was not always harmonious, it served as an example of how the two processes can complement each other to provide a comprehensive record of the conflict, a chance to address impunity, and an opportunity for healing and reconciliation.

Sierra Leone also established a limited reparations programme, which was one of the recommendations made by the Truth Commission in its report. Critics of the programme cited numerous weaknesses in its design and delivery, including a lack of transparency, limited time for registration of victims, and poor communication among others.7 The most enduring challenge that the programme faced however, has been in providing meaningful reparations to victims especially when funding remains scarce. 

A lack of funding also caused numerous challenges to the work of the TRC and SCSL. In the quest to deliver a leaner and cheaper tribunal, only thirteen persons were indicted by the Special Court. Of those targeted for prosecution, one was never captured, two died before their cases began, one died before trial judgement, and only nine were convicted.8 Given the scale of the crimes committed in Sierra Leone and the tremendous level of suffering meted out to victims, it has been argued that too few perpetrators have been held accountable.

Play Video

Legacy and impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone

Howard Varney, Senior Programme Adviser at the International Centre for Transitional Justice, discusses the legacy of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and its impact on the domestic legal system. He outlines how special courts and truth commissions can and should work in harmony, and discusses the amnesty agreements in the Lomé peace accord which helped to secure peace in 1999. Varney also discusses how Sierra Leoneans have used the Truth Commission report to put in place measures to build a new society in which the horrors and violence of the past will become unthinkable.

The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Article XXVI of the Lomé Peace Agreement called for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to address the crimes that had been committed in Sierra Leone and to provide a path to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation. In fulfilment of this clause of the agreement, the president and parliament of Sierra Leone adopted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act on 22 February 2000.9 

Despite the legal framework being in place, the breakdown of the Lomé peace process and the resumption of hostilities between warring parties led to delays in the TRC’s establishment. As stability returned to Sierra Leone, eventually seven commissioners – with a mix of national and international members – were sworn in by President Kabbah on 5 July 2002. The Commission subsequently commenced its work, with the objective to: 

“…create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, from the beginning of the conflict in 1991 to the signing of the Lome Peace Agreement; to address impunity; to respond to the needs of the victims; to promote healing and reconciliation and to prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered.”10

The work of the TRC was hampered by several problems, including management issues as it commenced its work, as well as irregular funding throughout its term.11 Despite this, the Commission was able to hear testimony from across the country and from a wide variety of actors including victims, perpetrators and other interested parties in the conflict, including President Kabbah. It gathered over 7,000 statements and submitted a three-volume final report in October 2004, which contained far-reaching recommendations to address the root causes of the conflict and establish means of overcoming them.12 Among other things, the recommendations included: the creation of a human rights commission; reform of the security and justice sector; reparations for victims; promotion of good governance; ensuring the participation and representation of youth in governance; and programmes to support women and children and implementation of anti-corruption measures.

The 2002 establishment of the TRC coincided with the establishment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. As the two institutions progressed with their work, a number of tensions emerged, the most notable of which involved the case of Sam Hinga Norman, former national coordinator of the Civil Defence Force (CDF). The question arose as to whether indictees before the SCSL could give testimony in open hearings before the Truth Commission if they elected to do so. Norman had been in detention awaiting trial at the Special Court since 10 March 2003 awaiting trial, when he sent a letter through his solicitor confirming his willingness to testify before the TRC. An application was made by Norman and the TRC before the SCSL, requesting authorisation for his appearance before the Commission. The application was denied by the Trial Chamber on the grounds that Norman could incriminate himself during his testimony, thus interfering with his right to a free and fair trial before the tribunal.

The matter went to appeal with the court deciding that testimony in the form of a sworn affidavit would be the most preferable, in order to reduce the likelihood of influencing witnesses or affecting the integrity of court proceedings. As a result of the decision, Norman refused to cooperate with the TRC and the TRC completed its work without ever interviewing this central figure.13 For its part, the TRC considered the decision to be “a grave injustice” to the indictee and the people of Sierra Leone, who were denied a chance to hear Norman’s evidence before his death.14 The decision and its aftermath provide important insights into how the procedural interplay and coordination between two such institutions can and ought to work.

Citations & References

9: Sierra Leone President and Members of Parliament (2000) “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act 2000”

10: Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2000) “Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act” Article 6 

11: Crisis Group (2002) “Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Fresh Start?”

12: Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2004) “Sierra Leone TRC Reports”

13: M. Nesbitt (2007) “Lessons from the Sam Hinga Norman Decision of the Special Court for Sierra Leone: How trials and truth commissions can co-exist” German Law Journal

14: Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2003) “The Hinga Norman Saga”

Commentary & Reports

Chris Mahony and Yasmin Sooka “The Truth About the Truth: Insider Reflections on the Sierra Leonean Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)” in Ainley, K. and Friedman, R. and Mahony, C. eds Evaluating Transitional Justice: Accountability and Peacebuilding in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone (Palgrave Macmillan, London: 2015) 

The authors, both TRC Commissioners, provide a critical appraisal of our own and our colleagues’ efforts within the Commission.They consider the Sierra Leonean TRC’s efforts to provide a historical narrative describing the causes of the conflict and the conflict itself, under more constraints than the South African Commission. The TRC’s accomplishments are placed in political context. The chapter examines the scarcity of resources and political support, the ill-defined and broad mandate and other key concerns to the post-conflict environment in which the Commission was established. The chapter discusses the importance of the nature of the conflict’s conclusion and the shift in British and American transitional justice preferences to explain the constraints that prevented the TRC from accessing deeper truths and confronting structural drivers of conflict. 

Fatou Michael Nesbitt “Lessons from the Sam Hinga Norman Decision of the Special Court for Sierra Leone: How trials and truth commissions can co-exist” (German Law Journal, Vol. 8 Issue 10: October 2007) 

The Sam Hinga Norman Decision (the Norman Decision) on the relationship between the SCSL and the TRC was the first international legal ruling to consider specifically how the procedural interplay and coordination between the two institutions can and should work. It directly addressed the goals of both TRCs and courts, how these worked to help Sierra Leone and, as a corollary of their respective purposes and procedures, how they could share information and work together for the benefit of the Sierra Leone. Nesbit argues that the decision offers invaluable preliminary insight into both the relationship between TRCs and courts and how that relationship can either be fostered or hindered by the policies and legal decisions taken before and during the functioning of their concurrent operations. 

The implementation of a reparations programme for victims 

In recognition of the role that reparations can play in assisting victims whose lives were affected by the conflict to move forward, restore their dignity and foster reconciliation, the TRC recommended the implementation of a reparations program. The Commission recommended measures that addressed various socio-economic needs of the victims, including education, healthcare, skills training and the provision of micro-credit, pensions, community and symbolic reparations.15 

For a victim of the conflict to be eligible for reparations, the Commission determined that the event or injury in question had to have occurred between 23 March 1991 and 1 March 2002. The Commission listed categories of victims it considered to be eligible beneficiaries of the reparation programme. These included amputees, other war-wounded persons, children affected by war such as orphans and child soldiers who had not benefitted from the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme, war-wounded children, and sexually abused women and widows. 

A limited reparations programme was established in Sierra Leone with mixed outcomes. Funding was a major issue, as the government of Sierra Leone had made it clear from the outset that it expected the programme to be mainly funded through donations. In 2007, the government applied for funding through the UN Peacebuilding Fund and also set up a steering committee for reparations which was composed of staff from the National Commission for Social Action, TRC Commissioners, civil society representatives and UN mission representatives.16 

Critics of the reparations programme found that it was hampered by several weaknesses in its design and implementation. This meant that not all victims benefitted from the exercise, while those that did, did so only in the short term. The bulk of the programme came in the form of an interim relief payment based on limited funding, which for most victims, was not followed up by any other measures.17 As a result, many victims have been left disgruntled with the reparations programme.

Citations & References

15: Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2004) “TRC Report : Witness to Truth: Volume Two (Chapter 4: Reparations)”

16: United Nations Peacebuilding (2018) “The UN Peacebuilding Fund in Sierra Leone”

17: Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (2014) “The Fortunate Ones and the Ones Still Waiting: Reparations for War Victims in Sierra Leone” Ottendörfer

Commentary & Reports

Jemini Pandya “Reparations for Sierra Leone’s War Victims Essential for Country’s Future” (International Organization for Migration: 16 November 2009)

In this interview, the then head of the National Commission for Social Action, Commissioner Saidu Conton Sesay, talked to IOM’s Jemini Pandya about the challenges he and his team faced as they implemented a reparations programme on behalf of the victims in Sierra Leone.

Eva Ottendörfer “The Fortunate Ones and the Ones Still Waiting: Reparations for War Victims in Sierra Leone” (Peace Research Institute Frankfurt: 2014)

This report presents the voices of victims of the civil war in Sierra Leone with regards to their perceptions of a reparations programme conducted from 2008 to 2013. As this report shows, the effects attributed to the legal principles of a ‘right to reparations’ are difficult to accomplish through concrete reparations programmes on account of high numbers of victims, limited funding and the structural challenges of post-conflict societies.

International Accountability

The Special Court for Sierra Leone

The Special Court for Sierra Leone was the first hybrid tribunal to be created by the United Nations. It was created after the establishment of the two United Nations ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994. Unlike the ICTY and ICTR which were created by UN Security Council resolutions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the SCSL was established in 2002 by an agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone. Following the collapse of the Lomé peace process due to continuous and flagrant violations of the peace agreement by the RUF, President  Kabbah requested UN assistance in establishing a hybrid court in Sierra Leone to try “members of the RUF and their accomplices.”18

On 14 August 2000, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1315 (2000) authorising the UN Secretary-General to enter into negotiations with the Sierra Leonean government to establish such a court. The resolution expressed the Council’s concern at the “very serious crimes committed within the territory of Sierra Leone against the people of Sierra Leone and United Nations and associated personnel and at the prevailing situation of impunity…” and that the “… international community would exert every effort to bring those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards of justice, fairness and due process of law.”19

The mandate of the Special Court was to prosecute those persons who bore the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law since 30 November 1996, the date of the failed Abidjan Peace Accord. Its subject matter jurisdiction extended to war crimes, crimes against humanity, serious violations of international humanitarian law and to certain crimes under Sierra Leonean law. It is notable that the mandate of the Special Court20 and the TRC21 focused on different periods of the conflict, with that of the TRC beginning in March 1991 and ending with the signing of the Lomé Peace Agreement in July 1999, thus creating a brief overlap in their mandates.

A major factor that determined the form the tribunal would take, and that would later influence its operational efficiency, was the issue of funding. The UN had already created two expensive ad hoc tribunals by the time the request to set up the SCSL arose. Unsurprisingly, political support for the creation of yet another costly establishment had waned. Extensive negotiations between the government of Sierra Leone and the UN Secretary-General followed, with the aim of setting up a leaner, more efficient and cheaper court, as compared to the ad hoc tribunals. 

The judges of the court were a mix of international and national judges, and the seat of the court was in Freetown, which ensured easier access to witnesses and evidence. Funding was made dependent on voluntary contributions instead of through UN assessed contributions, which negatively impacted on the operations of the court. Only thirteen persons were indicted by the court and their trials were eventually merged for greater efficiency; the three came to be known as the RUF, AFRC and CDF trials. A final trial was also held against the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor.

Citations & References

18: United Nations Security Council (10 August 2000) “Letter dated 9 August 2000 from the Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council”

19: United Nations Security Council (2000) “Resolution 1315”

20: Special Court for Sierra Leone (16 January 2002) “Statute of the Special Court for Sierra Leone”

21: Sierra Leone President and Members of Parliament (2000) “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act 2000”

The cases before the Special Court 

1. The Revolutionary United Front trial

Five leaders of the RUF – Foday Sankoh, Sam Bockarie, Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao – were indicted for international crimes before the SCSL. The indictments against Sankoh and Bockarie were withdrawn by the prosecution in December 2003 following their deaths. The trial of the remaining three accused began in Freetown on 5 July 2004. Each of the accused was charged with eight counts of crimes against humanity, eight counts of war crimes, and two counts of other serious violations of international humanitarian law. 

The charges related to atrocities committed against civilians and civilian property and included acts of terrorism, extermination, sexual slavery and other sexual violence, outrages upon person dignity, enlisting or conscripting children under the age of fifteen or using them to participate actively in hostilities, offences against United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone peacekeepers including intentionally attacking personnel on a peacekeeping mission, murder, and hostage taking, among other offences.22

On 25 February 2009, the Trial Chamber found Sesay and Kallon guilty on 16 of 18 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, and Gbao guilty on 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.23 The judgement broke new ground as it marked the first ever conviction in an international tribunal for forced marriage as a crime against humanity, as well as the crime of attacking United Nations Peacekeepers. 

The accused were sentenced to prison in April 2009 for 52 years in the case of Sesay, 40 years in the case of Kallon and 25 years in the case of Gbao. They appealed the judgement, and on 6 October 2009 the Appeals Chamber overturned Gbao’s conviction on Count 2 – the war crime of collective punishment – but upheld the sentences imposed by the Trial Chamber. They were transferred to Mpanga prison in Rwanda on 31 October 2009 to serve their sentences.24

2. The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council trial

The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) was made up of SLA soldiers who overthrew the government of President Kabbah on 25 May 1997. It appointed Army Major Johnny Paul Koroma, a retired SLA officer as their chairman and invited the RUF into a governing alliance. Four AFRC leaders – Alex Tamba Brima, Ibrahim Bazzy Kamara, Santigie Borbor Kanu and Johnny Paul Koroma – were subsequently indicted by the Special Court and charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.25

The accused were taken into the court’s custody between March and September 2003. Koroma fled Sierra Leone and has never been brought to trial; although he is widely believed to be dead, although his indictment remains open until his death is officially confirmed. A consolidated indictment against the remaining three accused was approved in January 2004 and a joint hearing began in March 2005. The Trial Chamber found the accused guilty on 11 of the 14 counts in the indictment. The judgement marked the first time that an accused person was tried and convicted for the use of child soldiers in an armed conflict.26 Brima and Kanu were sentenced to 50 years imprisonment while Kamara received a 45-year sentence. The conviction and sentences were upheld on appeal and the accused were transferred to Mpanga prison in Rwanda to serve their sentences.27

3. The Civil Defence Forces trial

The Civil Defence Forces (CDF) were a collection of local pro-government militias composed mainly of “Kamajors”, traditional Sierra Leonean hunters who fought in the conflict in Sierra Leone between November 1996 and December 1999.28

The Trial Chamber ordered a joint trial of three leaders of the CDF – Sam Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa – in February 2004, with their trial beginning in June the same year. The accused were charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. The Trial Chamber concluded closing arguments in the case in November 2006, but Norman died before judgement was pronounced, thus leading to the termination of proceedings against him in May 2007. 

Fofana and Kondewa were found guilty of war crimes and Kondewa guilty of other serious violations of international law in August 2007.29 In May 2008, the Appeals Chamber overturned part of the convictions but also entered new convictions on some counts and increased the sentences against the accused. Fofana was sentenced to 15 years and Kondewa to 20 years imprisonment. On 28 May 2018, Fofana completed his sentence and was discharged from the jurisdiction of the court. Kondewa was granted a conditional early release in July 2018 and allowed to complete his sentence in Sierra Leone.

4. The Charles Taylor trial

The conflict in Sierra Leone was closely tied with that in Liberia. Former President Charles Taylor faced prosecution at the SCSL for supporting the RUF and AFRC/RUF alliance during the conflict. This was despite his argument that he was protected from the court’s jurisdiction on the grounds of sovereign immunity and extraterritoriality.30 At the time his 17-count indictment was unsealed in June 2003, Taylor was still the President of Liberia. On August 11, 2003 he stepped down as president and went into exile in Nigeria where he had been granted asylum. 

On 16 March 2006, the SCSL approved an amended indictment against him, reducing the number of counts from 17 to 11. These included five counts of war crimes: terrorising civilians, murder, outrages on personal dignity, cruel treatment, looting; five counts of crimes against humanity:, namely, murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilating and beating, enslavement; and one count of other serious violations of international humanitarian law for the recruitment and use of child soldiers. It was alleged that these crimes were committed in multiple locations across Sierra Leone and that Taylor was individually criminally responsible for the crimes through planning, aiding and abetting their commission. It was further alleged that he was responsible as a superior for the crimes committed directly by the RUF, AFRC and Liberian fighters. 

On 26 April 2012, the Trial Chamber found Charles Taylor guilty on all eleven counts.31 He was sentenced to 50 years in prison, which was upheld on appeal. Taylor is serving his sentence in the United Kingdom.32 


The Amnesty provision in the Lomé Peace Agreement: The price for peace?

Article IX of the Lomé Peace Accord (Ratification) Act grants blanket amnesty to all warring parties for acts committed during the conflict, beginning from March 1991. The legislation was signed into law by President Kabbah on 22 July 1999, and provides the legal basis upon which the provisions of the Lomé Peace Accord (signed earlier that month) would be implemented in the country. The inclusion of the amnesty provision in the Lomé Peace Accord was necessary after it became clear that Foday Sankoh would not sign the agreement if the threat of criminal sanctions were hanging over him and the RUF.33 In contrast to the Abidjan Peace Accord signed in 1996, which only granted amnesty to the RUF, the Lomé Peace Accord granted blanket protection to all ‘combatants and collaborators’, from the AFRC, SLA and CDF, in addition to amnesty from prosecution for the RUF.34

Those who were considered to be the most responsible for the crimes committed in Sierra Leone were prosecuted at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The flagrant and continuous violations of the Lomé Peace Accords by the RUF, coupled with the embarrassing kidnap in May 2000 of hundreds of UNAMSIL peacekeepers helped to change the momentum at the Security Council in favour of prosecuting perpetrators. At the time of the signing of the Lomé Agreement on 7 July 1999, it was widely accepted, by the government of Sierra Leone, the UN and other interested States, that the price of peace was complete impunity for all those who had committed serious violations of international humanitarian law.35 

The UN Secretary-General’s special representative to Sierra Leone added a disclaimer to the Peace Agreement, to the effect that the United Nations did not recognise the validity of the amnesty in respect of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. In this spirit, Article 10 of the Statute of the SCSL is clear that any amnesty granted to a person who fell within the jurisdiction of the court would not be a bar to prosecution. Inevitably, this question was adjudicated before the Court in the case of Kallon and Kamara (RUF), who argued in a preliminary motion that not all amnesties are unlawful in international law and that the Lomé Agreement was binding on the government of Sierra Leone, since it constituted an international treaty governed by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.36 The Special Court rejected this argument in an appeals chamber decision rendered on 13 March 2004, which stated that “…the grant of an amnesty for international crimes…is not only in breach of international law, but is in breach of an obligation of a State towards the international community as a whole.”37

The TRC, however, took a different view on the question of amnesties in peace agreements, holding that not all parties to a conflict should be prosecuted, especially where they comply with the provisions of a peace agreement. Its finding reads as follows: 

“The Commission is mindful of the fact that parties to a peace agreement should not be permitted to breach its provisions with impunity. The Commission recommends that future peace agreements that include an amnesty should contain a clause that specifically revokes the protection of amnesty in respect of the party or individuals responsible for breaching the agreement.”38

As a result, it has been argued that perpetrators of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during the civil war are protected from prosecution in the national courts of Sierra Leone. The question, however, remains as to whether perpetrators can be tried under the principle of universal jurisdiction in foreign courts.

Citations & References

33: Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2004) “TRC Report: Witness to Truth: Vol One (Chapter 1: The Mandate of the TRC)”

34: Ibid

35: Avril McDonald (2004) “Sierra Leone’s Shoestring Special Court” IRRC

36: Simon Meisenberg (2004) “Legality of Amnesties in International Humanitarian Law, The Lome Amnesty Decision of the Special Court for Sierra Leone” IRRC

37: Special Court for Sierra Leone (13 March 2004), “The Prosecutor v. Morris Kallon and Brima Buzzy Kamara, Decision on Challenge to Jurisdiction: Lomé Accord Amnesty”, Appeals Chamber, SCSL-2004-15- AR72(E) and SCSL-2004-16-AR72(E), para 73

38: Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission(2004) “TRC Report: Witness to Truth: Volume Two (Chapter 3: Recommendations)”

Commentary & Reports

Simon N. Meisenberg “Legality of Amnesties in International Humanitarian Law, The Lomé Amnesty Decision of the Special Court for Sierra Leone” (International Review of the Red Cross No. 856: December 2004)

The Special Court for Sierra Leone’s decision on the validity of amnesties under international law is the first ruling of an international criminal tribunal unequivocally stating that amnesties do not bar the prosecution of international crimes before international or foreign courts. This article discusses the significance of this decision.