International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
May 2006, Volume 1, Issue 2

International Tribunal Spotlight:
Special Court for Sierra Leone

Special Court for Sierra LeoneIntroduction

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was established in 2002 following a decade-long civil war between the Sierra Leonean army and rebel militias that resulted in the death and mutilation of tens of thousands of civilians and the displacement of roughly one-third of this West African countryís 6 million inhabitants.† †††

It is the outcome of an Agreement concluded between the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1315. This resolution requested that a special court be set up to hold accountable those with the greatest responsibility for serious crimes perpetrated during the conflict.

The SCSLís establishment is significant in several ways: It is the first independent tribunal of its kind to operate in the country where the crimes were committed. In addition, the Court was established with the recognition that it would function parallel to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. †And, it is the first tribunal to try an African head of state for crimes committed while in office.†

Although backed by the United Nations, the SCSL, which is situated in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown, is not strictly speaking an international tribunal along the lines of the ad hoc criminal tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) or the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC).

These tribunals are comprised of international judges who only apply international law.† In contrast, the SCSL is a hybrid court. Its personnel include judges, prosecutors, investigators, and other staff from Sierra Leone as well as the international community. Moreover, the SCSL is authorized to prosecute serious violations of both international law and municipal law, i.e. the law of Sierra Leone. ††††††


According to its Statute, the Special Court is vested with authority to prosecute only those individuals with the greatest responsibility for violations of international humanitarian law and certain crimes under Sierra Leonean law that took place in the country after November 30, 1996.†

Among the international crimes over which the SCSL may exert its jurisdiction are crimes against humanity, violations of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law such as intentionally directed attacks against civilians and personnel and materials involved in humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping operations.†

The international crime of enlisting or using child soldiers (under the age of 15 years), something which was an all too frequent practice during the conflict, also falls within the Courtís jurisdiction.†

Similarly, the Court enjoys authority to prosecute the abuse and abduction of girls under the age of 14, both of which are offenses under the Sierra Leonean Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act. Other domestic crimes for which the Court may exercise jurisdiction include the wanton destruction of property as prohibited by the countryís Malicious Damage Act.†

There is no immunity from prosecution for high-ranking officials who allegedly commit these crimes.†

All persons over the age of 15 years, including the Head of State or Government or other government officials and military superiors, shall be held individually responsible for criminal acts they commit. The Statute also formally precludes any grant of amnesty as a bar to prosecution.† ††

Although the Special Court and national courts have concurrent jurisdiction, the Special Court has primacy and may ask the national courts to defer their competence.†

Structure and Composition †

The Special Court consists of three principle organs: the Chambers, Prosecutor, and the Registry. The authority and functions of each of these organs are spelled out in the Courtís Statute and in its Rules of Procedure and Evidence. Together, they ensure that proceedings are conducted in a transparent and efficient fashion and in accordance with international fair trial standards.†

The Courtís Chambers are divided into two Trial Chambers, consisting of three judges each, and an Appeals Chambers, which consists of five judges. The UN Secretary-General appoints two judges and the Government of Sierra Leone appoints one judge to each trial chamber. At the appellate level, three of the five judges are appointed by the Secretary-General; the remaining two are appointed by the government.†

Each judge is appointed to a three year renewable term. A list of judges currently serving on the Court, including assignments and biographies, is available here.†

The Office of the Prosecutor is an independent and separate organ of the Court responsible for investigating and prosecuting suspects. The Chief Prosecutor, who is appointed for a three year renewable term by the Secretary-General, is assisted by both international and local staff, including a Deputy Prosecutor appointed by Sierra Leonean authorities.

Desmond de Silva, the current Chief Prosecutor who succeeded David Crane in 2005, recently announced he will leave the Court at the conclusion of his contract in June 2006.†

As the Courtís administrative organ, the Registry is responsible for managing the court, serving as its official communication channel, assisting the Chambers and Prosecutorís Office, and running the detention facility.† It also provides security, counseling, and other assistance to victims and witnesses.†

In addition, the Registry maintains the Office of the Principal Defender, which offers legal advice and representation to suspects and the accused.††† †

Through its Public Affairs and Outreach sections, the Registry promotes greater understanding of the Court. One of the ways it has done so is through a booklet, The Special Court Made Simple, which was first disseminated in 2003.††

To date, the Court has issued indictments for thirteen individuals believed to bear the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the conflict in Sierra Leone.

The most prominent of whom, former President of Liberia Charles Taylor, made his first appearance before the Court on April 3, 2006. He was arrested several days earlier while trying to flee Nigeria, where he had enjoyed political asylum since 2003 as part of an accord to end the conflict.† †

At his arraignment in Freetown, Taylor pleaded not guilty to an eleven count amended indictment that was originally issued by the Prosecutor and then confirmed by a Trial Chamber in March 2003.† In this document, Taylor is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and serious violations of international law for systematic murder, rape, enslavement, terrorism, use of child soldiers, and other inhumane acts.†† †††

Concerns over security prompted the Courtís President to ask the International Criminal Court and the Dutch government to facilitate Taylorís trial in The Hague by an SCSL Tribunal Chamber.†

Both have responded favorably but the Dutch government is withholding its agreement until such time that the UN Security Council adopts a resolution authorizing Taylorís transfer from Freetown and another country agrees to take the former President if he is convicted.† Austria, Sweden, and Denmark have reportedly refused.†

Only one indictee remains at large now that Taylor is in custody. Two indictees have died. There are currently three separate trials underway. Those found guilty will receive jail sentences. The Special Court may not impose the death penalty.†


The Court budget has experienced a gradual reduction from $34 million for 2003/2004, to $29.9 million for 2004/2005, to roughly $25.5 million in 2005/2006.† These funds cover the Courtís personnel costs (for 341 staff) in addition to its operational costs.††

For More Information

Special Court for Sierra Leone
United Nationals Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL)
ASIL Insight: Charles Taylor and the Special Court for Sierra Leone
ASIL Insight: †Immunity from Prosecution for International Crimes: The Charles Taylor Case
Crimes of War Project

by Andrew Solomon, ASIL Director of Research and Outreach Programs

« Back to the first page

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2006 – The American Society of International Law and International Judicial Academy.

Editors: James G. Apple, Katherine Brantingham and Andrew Solomon.
IJM welcomes comments, suggestions, and submissions.
Please contact the IJM editors at