By Reta Raymond
Special Features Editor
I am a third-year student at Syracuse University College of Law, and spent this past summer as an intern at Access to Justice Law Centre, a NGO in Makeni, Sierra Leone. These journal entries document my time spent in Sierra Leone. The opinions expressed in this series are purely my own, and not those of Access to Justice Law Centre.
“Charles Taylor couldn’t escape the law, and neither can your husband!” exclaimed Madiana, a Project Coordinator at Access to Justice Law Centre (“AJLC”). I was at a community outreach event in a rural village, about thirty minutes outside of Makeni, in northern Sierra Leone. That day, AJLC brought members of the community together to discuss the legal rights of women and children and provided resources for those seeking help. The woman Madiana was addressing had been skeptical of the law’s ability to stop her husband from beating her. This woman had once before reported her husband to the Family Support Unit of the Police Department, but to no avail.
I came to Sierra Leone after my second year of law school at Syracuse University to work as an intern at AJLC. AJLC is a non-governmental organization that serves women and children throughout northern Sierra Leone. They provide mediation, counseling, and litigation services. It was at this community outreach event, during the first week of my internship, that I began to realize how a failed state could rebuild the rule of law.
Many local people I’ve spoken to agree that Sierra Leone was a failed state when the civil war ended in 2002. The United Nations and the Sierra Leonean government created the Special Court for Sierra Leone as a way of seeking justice for the widespread atrocities that were committed against civilians during the war. The Special Court was mandated to prosecute the few who bore the “greatest responsibility” for the war crimes. Finally, on April 26, 2012, after a five-year trial, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was found guilty of eleven counts of aiding and abetting the war in Sierra Leone.
However, those who did not bear the greatest responsibility, but were responsible in fact for the atrocities, were reintegrated into society after the war. This issue of reintegration is perplexing. How can respect for the rule of law be instilled in former rebel soldiers who once killed and amputated the limbs of civilians and now work as motorbike taxi drivers or selling mobile phone airtime? How do they react when they carry an amputee to the market? How can perpetrators of atrocities and their victims live alongside one another, as if the war never happened? How do other victims respect the rule of law, when it was not applied to the individual perpetrators of the crimes against them?
While it is hard to speculate on the true impact of Charles Taylor’s judgment, it is clearly has value in rebuilding the rule of law, here in Sierra Leone. The current government is working to set precedents in the area of anti-corruption by indicting top officials. With steps like this Sierra Leone seems capable of proving that no one can escape conviction, not Charles Taylor, not ministers, and not abusive husbands in rural villages.
Through this series, “Notes from Makeni,” I hope to give readers an insight into some of my experiences here in Sierra Leone. I am fortunate to be working with some very talented legal professionals here at Access to Justice Law Centre; they are engaged in strengthening this country, village by village.