The Success and Challenges of Transitional Justice in Sierra Leone

The Victorian Bar, in conjunction with the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, proudly presents

Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, Founder of The Society for Democratic Initiatives, Sierra Leone

1 August 2012
Held at Monash University Law Chambers, 555 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne


Watch the full video of the event on our YouTube channel

Watch Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai discuss transitional justice in Sierra Leone in this 5 minute Q&A


Report by Kylie Pearce

Sierra Leone. It is one of the oldest polities in Africa, and is rich in natural resources, such as diamonds. However it is also the poorest country in the world, and recovering from the ferocious 1991-2001 civil war. Victims of the horrific war include an estimated: 75,000 fatalities, 10,000 people who had their limbs brutally chopped off; 5,000 children who were forced to fight beside adults; and many more who were abducted to be sex slaves.

In August, the Victorian Bar, in conjunction with the Castan Centre, hosted a public lecture on transitional justice in Sierra Leone, delivered by guest speaker Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, lawyer and Founder of the Society for Democratic Initiatives in Sierra Leone.

The country's civil war officially ended in 2002, and democracy is slowly becoming an accepted means of governance. Despite this, Mr Abdulai emphasised the need to eradicate the psychological threat of war by strengthening democratic institutions. In 2003, Mr Abdulai established the Society for Democratic Initiatives in Sierra Leone. He also worked at both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The Sierra Leone government set up The Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a "restorative mandate" to facilitate victims and perpetrators coming together to help them move forward in their lives. The UN created the Special Court to institute "retributive" justice, and having these two mechanisms is what makes Sierra Leone's approach unique. Mr Abdulai said that the European concept of transitional justice is alien to the people of Sierra Leone.

For example, crime in Sierra Leone is traditionally dealt with by local chiefs and while there may be compensation offered to the victim, imprisonment is perceived as a wrong against the community.

The Special Court, with the support of Sierra Leone's government, agreed that even pro-government forces would be tried at the court for war crimes, and consequently the court was almost completely alienated from local peoples. Mr Abdulai explained that in Sierra Leone the vigilantes had fought against the rebels to restore democracy and to defend their communities. The Special Court's approach was a bold step intending to send a strong message: that the world does not accept brutal tactics regardless of whose side you are fighting on.

From the outset, there was tension between the Commission and the Special Court. The Commission was empowered above all courts, and it guaranteed that any testimony and evidence could not be used in the Special Court. However, when the leader of the vigilante opposition forces was indicted and arrested by the Special Court, the Court refused to allow him to participate in the Commission, due to the risk of prejudice to his Special Court case. Mr Abdulai asserted that missed opportunities of this kind compromised the final outcomes and effectiveness of both institutions. On the other hand, Mr Abdulai also shared stories illustrative of the positive outcomes of symbolic reconciliation between victims and perpetrators at the Commission.

The output of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a three-volume report detailing the Government's use of corruption and tactics to gain power and control. It is hoped that the report will become a historical blueprint for generations to come. However, Mr Abdulai questioned the impact of its many recommendations, which have subsequently been undermined and disregarded by the Sierra Leone Government, including the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission.

Regarding the Special Court Emmanuel discussed some of the barriers for access to justice, which potentially compromised at the Special Court. Firstly, local defence lawyers faced being ostracised in their community for defending alleged perpetrators. Secondly, local judges were not in favour of the pro-government forces being tried.

Thirdly, the funding for the Special Court came from international donations which were uncertain from one year to the next. Finally, he contended that there was no ‘equality of armour' in the Special Court, as the office of the prosecution had been allocated nearly all the resources, leaving the defence seriously underfunded.

Mr Abdulai's discussion of the challenges of implementing transitional justice in Sierra Leone had a powerful impact on the audience due to his comparative analysis of the interactions between African, Western and international jurisdictions and values that provided invaluable insight into the complexities of transitional justice.


Sierra Leone, a country that experienced one of the most brutish civil wars between 1991 and 2002, can offer answers at least to some of the myriad of accountability questions raised in transitional justice.  After the war Sierra Leone established two institutions: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SLTRC) and the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). The SLTRC assembled many perpetrators of atrocities during the war and victims of the same war, as well as those who created the sociological, political and economic environment that led to the war in the first place. The SCSL is a unique hybrid tribunal of local and international law, established to indict, prosecute, and convict those who bear ‘greatest responsibility for war crimes' committed within the country during the period of the Sierra Leonean civil war.  This presentation will look at the political, sociological as well as legal successes and challenges of the SLTRC and SCSL, discussing the ramifications of setting up those two mechanisms simultaneously and the financial implication of setting up the court.

Following a 420 day trial, the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague recently sentenced former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, to 50 years' jail for aiding and abetting crimes and atrocities that claimed 50,000 lives during the Sierra Leone civil war. He is the first head of state to be convicted by an international criminal tribunal since the Nuremberg trials.

Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai is a lawyer by profession, whose only brother was abducted and killed by rebel forces when Sierra Leone exploded into civil war. In 2003, he established The Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI) in Sierra Leone, a non-government organization working to entrench democratic governance and to protect and promote human rights. SDI plays a critical role towards democratic development in Sierra Leone given issues arising in the wake of a one-party governing system and a decade long civil war. Although the war officially ended in February 2002, socio-economic progress remains extraordinarily difficult to achieve in a political climate of corruption, harassment, violence and intimidation. Good governance by leaders with the interests of the common people at heart is the key to progress, and SDI's unflinching commitment to this goal increases the prospect that history does not ever repeat itself.

During Sierra Leone's transition, Emmanuel worked at both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The Victorian Bar kindly acknowledge Flight Centre Travel Club who have sponsored Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai's travel to Australia


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