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Thursday, June 14, 2007

SIERRA LEONE Sees Justice At Long Last

Verdict on war crimes charges could show a new age of rule of law has come to Africa

Something very important began in a courtroom in the Hague last month. For the first time, an African head of state has gone on trial for war crimes. It is an opportunity to achieve restorative justice for countless victims of his brutality.

Africa is a continent rich in culture, natural resources and wonderful people. Tragically, for too long its land has been exploited and its people violated by vicious violence.

During colonial rule, a long litany of abuse was inflicted upon the innocent, such as **the murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people in late colonial Kenya.

Unfortunately, as colonies gained independence, the agony did not end. New nations suffered civil wars, ethnic killings and savage authoritarian regimes. As Martin Meredith explores in his book The Fate of Africa, the continent moved from the hopes of freedom to the heart of despair. Rwanda, the eastern Congo, Zimbabwe and Darfur are just a few places scarred by atrocities and abuse.

The small west African nation of Sierra Leone has a history of turmoil and trauma since it gained independence from Britain in 1961. Charles Taylor, the former president of neighboring Liberia, fomented brutal conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia with widespread use of child soldiers. Between 1989 and 2003, these wars claimed 400,000 people.

While serving as Ambassador to the U.N. for Special Political Affairs, I traveled to Sierra Leone in 2002 and again in 2003. In the capital, Freetown, and in villages in the countryside, I heard horror stories, saw countless people who had lost limbs, and felt the lingering sense of insecurity in a society desperately trying to mend itself.

The story of Sierra Leone's child soldiers is dramatically told with heartbreaking honesty by Ishmael Beah in his best-selling book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Kidnapped at 10 years old and enlisted as a soldier, Beah endured descent into hell and survived. He describes how he became one of tens of thousands of underage, drugged-up irregulars "fighting without inhibitions and killing without compunction." It is a powerful, gripping and deeply disturbing story. Most of these child soldiers never regain their humanity.

Mending broken societies rendered unrecognizable by violence is not easy. Establishing a sense of security, reconciliation and renewal takes time. Among the cornerstones of a new and stable society is establishing justice and accountability.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are a means to recognize the suffering of victims and shame perpetrators.

But for those guilty of the worst crimes against humanity, for men like Taylor, that is not enough. For renewal to commence, justice must be done.

Up until now, heads of state in Africa could commit truly terrible acts with impunity.

In 2003, Taylor fled the Liberian presidency for exile in Nigeria. Three years later, he was arrested and now he sits in the dock.

This trial and the justice it will bring is vital to the healing and renewal of Sierra Leone.

But its impact goes beyond Sierra Leone. It will demonstrate that the days of impunity have come to an end for African rulers. It offers hope that the rule of law and accountability have arrived. It may give pause to future monsters who would abuse others. Let's hope so.

***Richard S. Williamson is a Chicago lawyer and former U.S. ambassador at the United Nations.

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