By Marta Martinez
The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) — a hybrid court established jointly by the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone (the first of its kind)—is now nearing the end of its mandate to prosecute the most responsible perpetrators of war crimes committed during the country’s civil war, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, raped, and mutilated, and hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes.
The Special Court has brought a measure of justice for victims, and most Sierra Leoneans have a positive view of the court, according to surveys. Its trials have been an opportunity for citizens to learn the truth about what happened during the conflict, and its courtrooms have provided a legal forum for hundreds of victims to come forward and tell their stories.
The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) sought to provide a platform to those most affected by the court’s work – the citizens of Sierra Leone. Seeds of Justice, a video series of portraits, enlists the voices of Sierra Leoneans in the debate about the legacy of the court to raise awareness of their views on the subject among international policy makers.
The series combines intimate photography by an award-winning photographer Glenna Gordon, and audio recordings of each personal testimony. The five protagonists – a business woman, a traditional chief, a lawyer, a women’s rights activist, and an amputee who was forced to fight for the rebels – candidly describe the suffering they endured during conflict, how they survived, and the impact of the court on their lives and the future of the country.
From the poorest suburb of a small city in Eastern Sierra Leone to a busy grocery store in the capital Freetown, these portraits are a mirror of today’s Sierra Leone, a country where the scars of the past are slowly healing.
The narratives gradually lead to honest thoughts on the legacy of the SCSL, with reflections both positive and critical “Many of us we are pleased when the verdict was passed at The Hague [against Charles Taylor],” says Mohamed Bah, a former child soldier who lost an arm when trying to flee from the rebels. “But still much needs to be done to address the needs of persons who were amputated during the war.”
The stories delve into deeper notions, such as the relationship between accountability and development, gender-based violence, reintegration of child soldiers, reparations, and the rule of law. The overall message is best captured by the words of the businesswoman Aminata Sesay: “Without justice, no matter what development might be going on now, there is no peace.”
Voices of victims, community activists, and “ordinary” citizens must be included in the discussion about the work of institutions that are supposed to provide justice for massive human rights abuses, if we are to have a comprehensive picture about their impact and long-term legacy. These discussions are often limited to legal experts, politicians and international bureaucrats, which leaves out the most important voices belonging to the population heavily invested in trials conducted by international courts.
We aimed to reach both international and local audiences with these videos. By publishing Seeds of Justice on our website and distributing them through social media and other outreach methods – in English, Spanish, and Arabic– we aimed to reach practitioners, human rights activists, policy makers, academics, students and others examining the impact of international courts.
At the same time, through planned screenings in Sierra Leone, including at the human rights film festival “Open Yu Yi” in Freetown, we aim to reach Sierra Leoneans and contribute to the ongoing debate on the SCSL among the population directly affected by the work of the court.