In March 1991, a growing rebel force in neighboring Liberia known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded Sierra Leone, commencing one of the most violent civil wars in modern history. With the support of Liberian President Charles Taylor, RUF Commander Foday Sankoh recruited Sierra Leonean youths struggling with unemployment and lack of access to education to control the civilian population and take over the country’s lucrative diamond mines.

There was a brief ceasefire in July 1999 after the signing of the Lomé Peace Agreement, but the RUF frequently breached the agreement’s provisions and continued its aggressive tactics toward civilians, later targeting United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) personnel.

In 2000, the British military intervened and managed to weaken RUF forces, but the war did not officially end until January 2002, with a public burning of weapons collected from disarmed ex-combatants. During the 11 years of war, child soldiers were conscripted, rape was widespread, and thousands of civilians were killed or mutilated in machete attacks.

Despite early failed attempts at peace, Sierra Leone later adopted a diverse array of transitional justice mechanisms to address the horrors of the civil war. With significant financial and military assistance from UNAMSIL and Britain, Sierra Leone directed resources toward the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a hybrid criminal tribunal, and made efforts to develop reparations programs and reform the military and police forces.

Transitional Justice Mechanisms
Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Established under Article 26 of the Lomé Agreement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) commenced its investigations in 2002 and published its final report in October 2004. At its inception, three of the seven commissioners were women. The mandate of the TRC was “to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict of Sierra Leone.” The Truth and Reconciliation Act explicitly provides that the “gender representation” of the commission itself should be taken “into account,” along with “regional participation.” In addition, the Act specifies that the commission should “giv[e] special attention to the subject of sexual abuses and to the experiences of children within the armed conflict.” The Act also gives permission to the commission to anonymize the recounted experiences of those who suffered sexual abuses.

Because the RUF was inflexible on its blanket amnesty demands, the inclusion of a TRC in the Lomé Agreement was a compromise to provide some mechanism of accountability for the atrocities committed during the war. The Sierra Leonean government did not have the capacity to financially support the commission, so the TRC largely depended on international donations. These financial constraints led to some delays, but under its two-year mandate, the commission managed to conduct 90 public hearings, collect more than 8,000 statements, and hear testimony from 350 victims.

In its final report, the TRC made nearly 220 recommendations for a wide array of transitional justice mechanisms, including reparations programs, women and children’s rights laws, and the creation of a Human Rights Commission. The Sierra Leonean government’s implementation of the recommendations has been slow due to a lack of resources. The TRC’s most important contribution is its recognition that the conditions that caused the war—including massive corruption, serious poverty, underemployment of youth, and discrimination against women and children—continue to mark Sierra Leone today. This presents an ongoing threat to the peace and security of the country.

Special Court for Sierra Leone

Although the Lomé Agreement provided blanket amnesty for perpetrators of atrocities during the war, the United Nations secretary general included an appended reservation to note that the amnesty provision would not be applicable to crimes against humanity and war crimes. In 2002, impunity was officially denounced by both the Sierra Leonean government and the international community when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1315, authorizing the secretary general to commence negotiations with Sierra Leonean officials on the creation of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).

An early problem that arose during Sierra Leone’s transitional justice process was the overlap between the TRC and the SCSL. To ensure that participants in the commission’s investigations provided frank and honest testimony, SCSL Chief Prosecutor David Crane announced that he would not use information obtained from the commission in SCSL proceedings. Despite this initial step toward cooperation, the two institutions came into dispute when Civil Defense Force (CDF) leader Sam Hinga Norman entered the SCSL’s custody because the TRC wanted Norman to testify at the commission before his trial. The SCSL refused the request, arguing that it would compromise his right to a fair trial by violating the presumption of innocence.

The SCSL is hybrid in nature, with a mixture of international and local staff and the authority to try crimes under both international and Sierra Leonean law. Located in Freetown, the SCSL has jurisdiction to prosecute “persons who bear the greatest responsibility of serious violations of international humanitarian law.” To address the special circumstances of women and girl victims, Articles 2 and 3 of the court’s statute contain extensive lists of gender crimes as crimes against humanity. As part of its mandate, the court has a special outreach program, whereby delegates inform locals of the court’s work through weekly radio broadcasts and video summaries of trials screened in every province.

To date, the court has indicted 12 people, three of whom died before the rendering of a final verdict. At its inception, the two people who bore the “greatest responsibility” for the war atrocities were identified as Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor. However, Sankoh died the year before the creation of the SCSL and Taylor was in exile in Nigeria. Nevertheless, the SCSL achieved a major victory when, due to international pressure, the Nigerian government extradited Taylor to Sierra Leone for trial. Taylor was immediately transferred to The Hague for security reasons. He was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and is currently serving his 50-year sentence in a British prison.

One of the most controversial SCSL indictments was against Sam Hinga Norman, leader of the CDF. The CDF protected villages from RUF attacks, and thus many Sierra Leoneans saw Norman as a hero. Nevertheless, the CDF brutally killed hundreds of RUF supporters, and in an attempt to eliminate all impunity, the SCSL brought prosecutions against those responsible for the war atrocities on both sides. Norman died before a final verdict was issued, but other CDF members were convicted.

The SCSL has jurisdiction to hear cases on child soldiers who were over the age of 15 at the time the alleged crime was committed. As a discretionary matter, however, Crane announced that he would not investigate any children under the age of 18. The court was also the first international tribunal to convict people for the crime of conscription and recruitment of child soldiers younger than 15 years old.

In its prosecution of crimes against women, the SCSL created an important precedent by declaring that forced marriage constitutes a separate crime against humanity distinct from sexual slavery. This development recognized the unique experience of “bush wives” who were sexually abused repeatedly, but also subject to the added psychological trauma of being forced to play the role of wife to their abuser.

Gender Bills and Child Rights Act

In addition to prosecuting sexual violence crimes as crimes against humanity in the SCSL, the legislature passed a series of measures known as the Gender Bills from 2007 to 2009 to address ongoing discrimination against women. This legislation included the Domestic Violence Act, the Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorce Act, and the Devolution of Estates Act. These laws aim to support women’s rights in family law. Sierra Leone also passed the Child Rights Act, which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 and prohibits forced marriages and dowry transactions. Although the government improved the legal status of women through the Gender Bills, the problem of discrimination against women remains.

Reparations Program: National Commission for Social Action

Article 29 of the Lomé Agreement called for the establishment of a Special Fund for War Victims. It was not until a decade later, in 2009, when Sierra Leone launched its reparations program for victims of human rights violations. Most funding came from international donors, although the Sierra Leonean government did contribute 246,000 US dollars, about 8.2 percent of the total cost. One of the largest donors was the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, which contributed 3 million US dollars. The National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), the agency established to implement the program, registered 27,992 victims, including children, amputees, war widows, and victims of sexual violence.

In its first year, NaCSA distributed interim relief packages of 300,000 leones (approximately 100 US dollars) to 20,000 victims and medical support to more than 200 victims of sexual violence. Although NaCSA intended to expand its work in 2010 to more victims through more diverse reparations programs, its operational capacities diminished due to lack of funding. With tens of thousands of victims registered and limited financial resources, many victims of war atrocities will likely never receive reparations.

Police and Military Reforms

An ongoing transitional justice program that received less attention than the TRC and the SCSL is the reorganization and retraining of the local police force and military.

The Sierra Leonean police force was a popular target for the RUF and other rebel groups because of its massive corruption in the decades leading up to the civil war. This made rebuilding the police infrastructure all the more difficult. With resource constraints, the Sierra Leonean government relied on Britain’s Commonwealth Community Safety and Security Project (CCSSP) and the United Nations Civilian Police (CIVPOL) for assistance. The reform project consisted of three pillars: the creation of 1) a Complaints, Discipline, and Investigations Department to provide civilians with a resource to file complaints against police officers; 2) Family Support Units to oversee domestic violence cases for women and children; and 3) human rights educational training programs for new officers. As part of the third pillar, Britain organized peace education programs and conflict resolution training, inviting guest speakers from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Human Rights and Development Center of CARE.

Although the project was proactive in achieving its objective of preventing human rights abuses in the future, it did little to screen current police officers for human rights abuses committed during the war. New recruits had to submit a character reference from a community chief and undergo a criminal record check by the police, but most police records were destroyed during the war, making the latter check futile.

The Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) underwent similar reforms with the British Ministry of Defense’s assistance. The British offered the International Military Assistance Training Team to retrain and organize the RSLAF. The vetting procedure for RSLAF, however, was even weaker than the one used for the police force: any ex-combatant could join the army as long as s/he was 18-25 years old and passed basic medical, literacy, and numeracy tests. Soldiers who defected from the army during the war were actively recruited to rejoin the military. Nonetheless, one success of the RSLAF reform project was its interaction with the TRC and the SCSL during training. Both the commission and the court educated new military personnel about their work, and new recruits were instructed to cooperate with both institutions.


The SCSL has been of paramount importance in the fight against impunity in West Africa, but it has failed to achieve some of its intended goals. The most notable shortcoming was the transfer of Taylor’s trial to The Hague. Taylor’s case was transferred at the request of the SCSL due to safety concerns, but there is evidence that the SCSL made transfer arrangements long before his detainment for political reasons. Taylor’s presence in West Africa was seen as so destabilizing that international actors urged the SCSL to conduct the trial in The Hague as early as 2005. The consequences of this decision were enormous, particularly because it moved the trial away from the victims directly affected by Taylor’s crimes. Although the SCSL attempted to make arrangements so that the trial could be broadcast in Sierra Leone, there were frequent interruptions in the broadcast and some altogether failed; as such, very few Sierra Leoneans had the chance to view the trial proceedings.

In addition, although the SCSL operated successfully with a mixture of Sierra Leonean and international staff, the court remained separate from the local judicial system. An intended benefit of creating the court was knowledge transfer, whereby international actors could train and mentor local legal professionals. This ambition never materialized due to limited involvement of locals and a lack of incorporation of national law into SCSL operations. With little assistance from the SCSL, there are still weaknesses in the country’s criminal justice system. Most notably, there is a massive shortage of judicial officials, and at least two districts are without their own magistrates. Although the SCSL is prosecuting those most responsible for war atrocities, there are thousands of low-level perpetrators who are escaping punishment because the local judicial system lacks the capacity to prosecute them. This is especially concerning as the SCSL is reaching the end of its mandate. 


According to the final report of the TRC, it addressed gender-based violence through a number of mechanisms. First, statement takers were trained specifically to conduct interviews with victims of sexual violence. The social and cultural implications of reporting sexual abuses were noted and addressed through sensitive statement-taking. Second, the commission held closed hearings for victims to “testify in a private setting” that were attended by counselors and only women commissioners. On the rare occasion that a public hearing for a sexual violence survivor was held, the testifying party was informed of the potential consequences. In March 2010, President Ernest Bai Koroma issued a public apology to women who experienced human rights violations during the conflict. The symbolic significance of this event was immense, but its apologetic message has failed to materialize in meaningful reform.

Women are some of the most complex victims of the war. The shame and social stigma attached to victims of sexual violence encourages many women and girls to deny the abuses of the past and reject transitional justice measures, such as obtaining medical support or testifying for the TRC. If victims admit to being sexually violated, they risk being isolated from their community and abandoned by their husbands or family.

International Actors

UNAMSIL was on the ground from 1999 to 2005 with approximately 17,500 troops, the world’s largest peacekeeping force at the time. UNAMSIL and other United Nations bodies have been a financial resource for transitional justice mechanisms in the country, including the TRC and the reparations program.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also became involved in the conflict as peacekeepers, but committed severe human rights atrocities while in Sierra Leone. Most notably, there were reports of Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) personnel performing summary executions against Sierra Leoneans. No cases against ECOMOG personnel have been brought before the SCSL because peacekeepers are “subject to the primary jurisdiction of their sending state.”

An important ally during Sierra Leone’s transitional justice process has been the British military and government. In 2000 when the RUF broke the ceasefire, the British military responded with force and restabilized the country. Sierra Leone has also turned to its British allies to reform and train the Sierra Leonean police force and RSLAF.


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