The tribunal established to prosecute those most responsible for atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war will soon deliver its final judgment and become the first international criminal tribunal to go out of business.
The court's president, Justice Shireen Avis Fisher, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that because of its vision the tribunal not only succeeded in prosecuting and convicting the worst perpetrators of killings, systematic mutilation and other atrocities in Sierra Leone but it has become a model for bringing justice.
The court was unique when it was established in 2002. Unlike the war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which are entirely run by the United Nations with an international staff, it was set up jointly by the U.N. and the Sierra Leone government with a mix of local and international prosecutors and judges.
The council, in a presidential statement, commended the Special Court for Sierra Leone for its important contribution to international criminal justice, ending impunity, and strengthening stability in Sierra Leone and the neighboring West African region.
Guatemala's U.N. Ambassador Gert Rosenthal, the council president who read the statement, said later that members "were very pleased for once to get good news" about the outcome of a council resolution and gave probably "the broadest support" to a tribunal in many years — "and rightly so."
"It happened in a joint effort between the host government and the United Nations in what really turned out to be a very successful lesson in combating impunity and in the development of international humanitarian law," Rosenthal said.
Fisher said the court is also the first hybrid tribunal created to assist a country that wanted post-conflict justice but didn't have the ability to ensure it, and the first U.N.-sponsored tribunal to carry out its work in a country where international humanitarian laws had been seriously violated which ensured that survivors of the civil war could participate in justice and not merely be bystanders.
She said the best evidence of the court's success can be seen in a European Union-funded independent survey in late May to measure the impact of the court. It found that nearly 80 percent of those surveyed in Sierra Leone and Liberia believe the tribunal accomplished its mandate — and that 91 percent of those surveyed in Sierra Leone and 78 percent in Liberia believe it has contributed to bringing peace to their countries, she said.
Fisher cited "truly remarkable" legal firsts for the tribunal: It was the first to recognize forced marriage as a crime against humanity and sexual violence as a form of terrorism. It was also the first to develop law on the recruitment and use of child soldiers which was used later by the International Criminal Court, and the first to rule on issues of immunity for sitting heads of state and on the crime of attacks on peacekeepers.
"On front after front, the Special Court has developed not only jurisprudence, but also tools, practices and programs addressing the specific needs of a post-conflict society," Fisher said, and it is ready to share the knowledge and expertise it has gained.
When the court was established, it was expected to operate for three years on voluntary contributions. All cases were completed by October 2009 — with eight convictions — except for prosecution of former Liberian president Charles Taylor.
The 64-year-old ex-leader, who didn't surrender until 2006, has been convicted and sentenced to 50 years imprisonment for war crimes and crimes against humanity for aiding and abetting murderous rebels during Sierra Leone's civil war.
Taylor became the first former head of state since World War II to be convicted by an international war crimes court. But he has appealed the convictions, calling them a miscarriage of justice, and prosecutors have appealed the court's decision to acquit him on more serious charges and are urging an increased sentence of 80 years behind bars.
Fisher told the council the appeals court will deliver the final judgment on Taylor's guilt or innocence soon.
The court's prosecutor, Brenda Hollis, said that while the court has set many precedents, it also faced many challenges over the past decade including ensuring the security of more than 300 prosecution witnesses before, during and after their trials. She noted that this year the court has convicted five people of contempt for interfering with witnesses.
Fisher said the tribunal will be succeeded by a small Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone whose responsibilities will include ensuring the protection of witnesses, preserving the court's archives and supervising the enforcement of sentences.
Fisher and Hollis said it's imperative that the Residual Special Court is adequately funded.
The Security Council urged donors to contribute generously to the tribunal as it finishes its work and to the Residual Special Court.