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The Special Court for Sierra Leone: Politics by other means?

Chris Mahony
Centre for International Law Research and Policy
Chris Mahony
Centre for International Law Research and Policy
Open Panel

Abstract

Often cited as a ‘new model’ for post conflict justice, the Special Court for Sierra Leone has been lauded as an international and domestic hybrid, mandated to try ‘persons bearing the greatest responsibility’ for international crimes. This paper employs a constructivist examination of the court’s historical antecedents to revise presumed liberal and neo-liberal intent behind its creation. Placing the creation of the Special Court in geo-political and historical context illuminates external intentions outside the parameters of orthodox transitional justice narratives. The Court’s premise was justified by a narrative effectively deployed by the British and then Sierra Leonean President Kabbah. It laid sole responsibility for the collapse of peace at the feet of the RUF. This narrative prompted partisan US blockage of demobilisation affecting a Clinton administration policy switch against then Liberian President, and RUF supporter, Charles Taylor. This paper argues that pressures for ‘accountability’ were utilised by the Court’s designing actors as one of multiple instruments to help pressure Taylor from power and remove opponents to President Kabbah. I draw attention to design departures such as ad-hoc amnesties and court dependence on designing states for funding. These, amongst other design oriented elements, shaped prosecution mandate, case selection, and investigative methodology. This compromised accused rights, and lent immunity to Kabbah, his foreign and domestic allies, and foreign RUF supporters with diplomatic clout. The paper concludes by examining the relationship between the breadth of state participation in tribunal design and the scope for subsequent political manipulation of tribunal case selection and function.