Prosecuting Sexual Violence at the Special Court for Sierra Leone

On 13 December, I organized a side-event at the International Criminal Court Assembly of States Parties titled “Prosecuting Sexual and Gender-Based Violence at the Special Court for Sierra Leone”. The event was co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions of Sierra Leone and Canada, UN Women, the Canadian Partnership for International Justice and Western University (Canada).

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Valerie Oosterveld & Sharanjeet Parmar, Photo Credit: CPIJ

At the event, Sharanjeet Parmar discussed her experience as a prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). I presented conclusions from a UN Women-funded project to gather best practices and lessons learned from the SCSL in its investigations and prosecutions of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Fannie Lafontaine, Canada Research Chair on International Justice and Human Rights, moderated the event, which was opened by Ambassador Amadu Koroma, Deputy Permanent Representative (Political),  Permanent Mission of the Republic of Sierra Leone to the UN, and Catherine Boucher, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN.

In this blog post, I will briefly explain the UN Women-funded project and some of the best practices that emerged. Over the past year, I, along with a small team consisting of Wayne Jordash, former SCSL defence counsel, Maxine Marcus, former SCSL prosecutor, and Fannie Leveau, gender issues consultant, interviewed over 30 individuals who had worked with the SCSL during that court’s 2002-2013 lifespan.

We spoke with individuals with a wide range of experiences – as investigators and prosecutors within the Office of the Prosecutor, as outreach workers, psycho-social support staff, and victim/witness protection staff in the Registry, defence counsel, judges and Chambers staff, and civil society members who worked closely with the SCSL. All had been involved in some way in investigating, prosecuting, defending or considering crimes of SGBV, or in supporting victims and witnesses who had experiences of SGBV.

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Fannie Lafontaine, Photo Credit: CPIJ

Those interviews revealed a number of best practices. First, the investigation and prosecution of SGBV was a key priority of all of the chief Prosecutors. This priority was originally set by the first Prosecutor, David Crane, at the outset of his mandate. Among his earliest hires were two investigators trained in SGBV and human rights, both experienced in gender analysis and both of whom had deep knowledge of the Sierra Leone conflict and familiarity with Sierra Leonean culture. They entered the Office with existing links to Sierra Leonean civil society (including women’s groups). Later, another gender advisor was added. These experts were integrated into multi-disciplinary investigation teams comprised of male and female international and local staff, with a combination of security, country, child rights and financial crimes experts. This meant that, from the beginning, the investigations were multifaceted and contextualized, with an understanding of how SGBV fit into the larger crime pattern. This translated into the collection of strong evidence on SGBV – in the context of all of the other crimes – for the prosecutors to use and apply in the indictments and trials.

Second, the large number of Sierra Leoneans in the SCSL – a proportion which increased over time to become a majority – meant that there was a deeper understanding of customary and traditional practices than there would be if the staff was mostly or entirely international. This strengthened the ability of those participating in the judicial process to understand witness narratives, including on SGBV, and the context within which the crimes were alleged. This was particularly important with respect to the forced marriage, rape and sexual slavery charges.

Third, the Registry contained an expert psychologist, whose work was directly linked to the SGBV and child soldier charges. The psycho-social support staff were Sierra Leonean. Together, the psychologist and her staff provided psychosocial support to SGBV survivors, among others, and adapted that support to fit the realities of the types of trauma experienced in Sierra Leone. This support helped to make victims feel comfortable enough to participate in the court process. Staff working with witnesses were provided with additional training on psycho-social support. However, it is important to note that the protection of, and support and outreach to, SGBV victims was limited by the lean budget of the court.

Fourth, outreach to the community throughout Sierra Leone was a priority within the court from the very beginning, despite the lack of budgetary support for this activity from the SCSL’s Management Committee. Outreach – including on SGBV crimes – commenced before the formal investigations began, first carried out by NGOs and thereafter directly by the SCSL. Staff were dedicated to outreach, making it happen despite the lack of budget. Eventually, the European Union agreed to fund the outreach.

The OTP was the first organ of the court to engage in outreach to women and girls in the field, with direct involvement of the Prosecutor. Responsibility was later shifted to the Registry, with the outreach program involving gender-sensitive Sierra Leoneans with connections to affected communities, including SGBV survivors. Outreach was organized and largely conducted by nationals, and that outreach included women’s groups, as well as organizations representing victims.

Principals of the SCSL travelled regularly to locations throughout the country to answer questions, explain the mandate, receive feedback and respond to concerns. They answered questions about SGBV crimes directly and openly, encouraging discussion of the issue. The outreach continued throughout the mandate of the court, and included updates on trials involving SGBV charges. That said, and in spite of the relative success of the SCSL’s outreach in comparison with other international tribunals, our interviewees indicated that more could have been done on SGBV outreach. For example, more confidence-building could have been done with those subjected to forced marriage, who were worried that they would be prosecuted by the SCSL because of their simultaneous victim-perpetrator status (as many of them were also forced to support or fight with the rebels).

Fifth, the fact that SCSL was based in Sierra Leone was a key factor in the court’s ability to successfully investigate and prosecute SGBV crimes. Interviewees indicated that localizing the court in-country facilitated access to SGBV evidence in a manner sensitive to the communal context. It also led to greater understanding of the links between SGBV and customary/traditional belief systems, as well as increased the understanding within the court of the context of the SGBV crimes. Location in-country also strengthened engagement with Sierra Leonean police services and organizations in witness protection activities and allowed for more effective risk assessments. Finally, being located in Sierra Leone allowed the court to more easily consult with community members, including consultations by the Office of the Prosecutor with a wide variety of women’s groups on the forced marriage charges.

There are many other best practices, as well as lessons learned, identified by our interviewees, which will be included in our final report, which is in the process of being drafted. If any IntLawGrrls readers have experience in the consideration of SGBV in the SCSL and wish to be interviewed for this study, please feel free to contact me at vooster@uwo.ca.

Thanks are extended to UN Women and the European Commission for funding Phase 1 of this study.

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