International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2012 Issue

International Tribunal Spotlight


The Special Court for Sierra Leone (revisited)

The Special Court for Sierra LeoneBy: Carolyn A. Dubay, Associate Editor, International Judicial Monitor

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) is a hybrid international criminal court established in 2002 by the United Nations and Sierra Leone to “try those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996,” as indicated on the SCSL’s website.  The SCSL has set several milestones in international criminal justice, including being the first international tribunal to try defendants in the country where the conflict occurred (with the exception of Charles Taylor, who was tried in The Hague), the first to be funded from voluntary contributions (especially from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands), and the first to try and convict defendants based on the enlistment and abuse of child soldiers. 

Although the SCSL was featured in the May 2006 issue of the International Judicial Monitor, revisiting the tribunal at this time is important given a number of additional milestones achieved by the SCSL after the conviction on April 26, 2012 of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for his role in aiding and abetting rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone during the conflict.  Taylor’s conviction is notable for many reasons.  On May 30, 2012, Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his crimes.  Symbolically, it is the first time since World War II that a former head of state has been tried and convicted in an international criminal court.  The end of the Taylor prosecution also signals the final prosecution within the mandate of the SCSL (one defendant remains a fugitive), and the SCSL will consequently begin winding down its affairs after the conclusion of Taylor’s appeal.  Eight other defendants are currently serving sentences ranging from 25 to 50 years after convictions in trials held in Sierra Leone.  This transition will make the SCSL the first international criminal tribunal since Nuremberg to conclude its mandate.  Finally, as a procedural matter, the Taylor conviction is remarkable for the length of the trial proceedings (which began in Sierra Leone in 2006, were transferred to The Hague in 2007, and concluded in 2012) and the length of the judgment itself (almost 2500 pages). 

Like other international criminal tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the SCSL has been vigilant is prosecuting allegations of bribery and corruption in connection with the criminal proceedings.  The SCSL has issued two contempt orders arising out of attempts to bribe witnesses in the trials of Charles Taylor and the members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).  With respect to the Taylor trial, in 2011, prosecutors alleged that a member of Taylor’s defense team and a former Sierra Leonean rebel attempted to bribe prosecution witnesses.  The court-appointed independent counsel concluded that evidence existed to support contempt charges against the former rebel, who was later indicted.  With respect to the AFRC defendants, independent counsel also concluded that evidence existed to support the claims that two of the SCSL’s convicted defendants, along with two outside collaborators, attempted to influence witnesses to recant their testimonies.   

With the conclusion of Taylor’s prosecution, the question remains as to what legacy the SCSL will have in the years to come.  Part of this question will be answered through the establishment of the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone, established through an agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone in 2011 and later ratified by the Sierra Leonean parliament.  The Residual Court will begin operations only upon the closing of the SCSL after Taylor’s appeal has been decided.  Like the SCSL, the Residual Court will be funded through voluntary contributions, and will focus its efforts on witness protection, transitioning the SCSL’s facilities to the government of Sierra Leone, maintaining the SCSL records and archives, and managing any post-conviction issues that may arise with respect to the convicted defendants now serving their lengthy sentences.  Trial of the remaining defendant, who remains at large, will also fall to the Residual Court.

The Open Society Justice Initiative issued a report in 2011 entitled “Legacy: Completing the Work of the Special Court for Sierra Leone” that highlighted several areas that needed international and domestic attention in order to ensure the legacy of the SCSL in promoting the rule of law and accountability for war crimes.  Beyond the establishment of the Residual Special Court and its attendant operations in witness protection and archival services, the report also urged public outreach on legacy issues, integrating SCSL decisions into domestic jurisprudence, and prosecuting lower-level perpetrators in the domestic courts (where such trials would be permitted under existing amnesty agreements, such as the 1999 Lomé Peace Accord between the Sierra Leone government and rebel forces).  As such, with all of the “firsts” established through the creation, operation and ultimate closure of the SCSL, world leaders, politicians, human rights workers and civil society organizations now must focus on entrenching the goals of accountability for war crimes in Sierra Leone and beyond.  As noted in the Open Society Justice Initiative Report, “[t]he closure of the SCSL represents the international community’s first opportunity to implement an appropriate exit strategy for international justice.”

(Note: The Special Court for Sierra Leone was first featured in the May, 2006 issue of the International Judicial Monitor - see Archive)

« Back to the Home Page


ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2012 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
IJM welcomes comments, suggestions, and submissions.
Please contact the IJM editor at