In Sierra Leone’s capital city, amidst an uneasy peace in the bloody aftermath of the country’s civil war, sat a shipping container converted into a makeshift courtroom. And inside this metal box, a team of lawyers sought to bring justice to women and young girls of this strike-torn country.
The lawyers were part of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and Western Law professor Valerie Oosterveld – who can be credited in part with SCSL’s beginnings – is writing its story.
Sierra Leone’s civil war began in 1991 with a rebel group’s attempt at a coup d’état, with the intention of controlling the country’s lucrative diamond mines.
During the next 11 years, more than 50,000 people lost their lives and half a million lost their homes. An additional 250,000 women and girls as young as seven were victims of sexual and gender-based violence. They endured rape, attempted rape, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and forced marriage.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone was formed in 2002 to, in part, try those responsible for these atrocities.
Before she arrived at Western, Oosterveld served on the Canadian delegation to the Diplomatic Conference that adopted the International Criminal Court’s founding treaty, negotiating the gender provisions that expanded the legal definition of sexual and gender-based violence. She then joined Global Affairs Canada’s legal bureau and was involved in the ongoing negotiations on International Criminal Court.
She was also deeply involved in lobbying to establish the SCSL in Sierra Leone itself – previous special courts had taken place outside countries where the crimes had occurred. This one became the first international tribunal in history to convict perpetrators for the crimes-against-humanity of sexual slavery and forced marriage.
Last December, Osterveld’s name was added to the Gender Justice Legacy Wall at the International Criminal Court, an honour that recognizes pioneers in the field of international gender justice.
Oosterveld continues to closely follow the SCSL’s work. Supported by UN Women, she recently compiled a report in investigating and prosecuting sexual- and gender-based violence – a ‘how-to’ manual that will be a critical reference for similar cases in conflict zones anywhere in the world.
Special courts set up after the Cambodian, Yugoslavian, and Rwandan civil wars and genocides met with limited success in prosecuting of sexual and gender-based violence cases because of the narrow legal definition of these cases, which tended to focus on rape to the exclusion of other crimes against women.
“The experience of women and girls in the Rwandan genocide made clear that there were many types of sexual and gender-based violence that helped to perpetuate the genocide, apart from rape, including forced nudity, sexual abuse, sexual slavery and mutilation of breasts and genitalia,” Oosterveld said. “It is important to recognize these violations as crimes.”
The Special Court for Sierra Leone adopted a number of crimes listed in the International Criminal Court’s treaty. As a result, it was able to prosecute a greater number of thesse cases than previous special courts and pushed the boundaries of international criminal law.
During interviews with the Special Court team for her UN Women project, Oosterveld discovered the lengths its prosecutors went to in understanding crimes that occurred in Sierra Leone’s civil war. They gathered together women who had been abducted and forced into sexual and domestic slavery by rebel commanders to ask how these acts should be described in the charges; the victims clearly responded that ‘forced marriage’ was the best label. As a result, the term was added to the legal definition of sexual and gender-based violence.
“This level of consultation with sexual and gender-based violence victims had never been done before,” Oosterveld said. “It was critical because it directly gave the victims a hand in defining and dealing with their pain.”
Before this Special Court was convened, tribunals prosecuting crimes in the Yugoslav war and the Rwandan genocide had been established away from conflict zones, in The Hague and Arusha, respectively. It is much easier for groups opposed to the justice process to spread misinformation when special courts are inaccessible to the general population.
“One of the most important factors in the SCSL’s success was that it was there amidst the people who suffered the conflict,” Oosterveld says.
Prior to the SCSL, tribunals prosecuting crimes in the Yugoslav war and the Rwandan genocide had been established away from conflict zones, in The Hague and Arusha, respectively. It is much easier for groups opposed to the justice process to spread misinformation when special courts are in countries far from the conflict and inaccessible to the general population.
“One of the most important factors in the SCSL’s success was that it was there amidst the people who suffered the conflict,” Oosterveld said. “With the SCSL’s presence in-country, it was easier for the court’s outreach efforts to succeed. The court could respond immediately to inaccurate rumours and court keep the population informed.”
It did so under extremely harsh circumstances.
“Freetown – Sierra Leone’s capital – had been overrun and looted by the rebels,” Oosterveld said, painting a scene of a place with “no electricity or running water, shot windows and burnt houses.”
As the court operated on a minimal budget, justice for the women and girls of Sierra Leone began in an old shipping container with cut-out doors and windows and a team of lawyers.
“No one knew if any one of the armed elements would come back,” Oosterveld said, so the SCSL team all had security escorts.
“There was a precarious feeling, but everyone at this court was fully committed to bringing justice to Sierra Leone,” she adds. “They were willing to adapt and do whatever they needed to do to make this successful.”
Crucially, the first chief prosecutor appointed two experts in sexual- and gender-based violence to his team. “These staff members knew Sierra Leone intimately, and knew the war,” Oosterveld said. They helped gather evidence and direct the investigation, which in turn led to prosecutions and convictions.
The court had also learned lessons from history. “Unlike previous special courts, which were staffed almost entirely by outsiders, many members of the SCSL team were from Sierra Leone itself,” Oosterveld said.
The public felt directly involved in solving their own problems with locals on the team; it also eliminated the sense of perceived bias from outsiders. This included Sierra Leonean investigators who helped to connect the prosecution lawyers to victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
“Sierra Leone is a small country and the news about the court spread very quickly and was highly publicized,” Oosterveld said. As a result, women and young girls began to openly talk about the atrocities of forced marriages, sexual slavery and rape that they had faced at the hands of the perpetrators.
“During the war, women and young girls did not talk publicly about sexual or gender-based violence,” she added. “War created immense social problems for them.”
The stigma was crippling – the prevailing conception was that if a perpetrator had enslaved a woman or a young girl, then she, as the victim, became a rebel.
“The relationship between them was seen as violent, yet intimate,” Oosterveld said. The victim’s own family and her community viewed her as having gone over to the other side. It was worse for those who became pregnant – both child and mother were usually ostracized from society.
For the first time, the SCSL gave these women and girls a chance to talk about their experiences within a justice process.
Oosterveld wanted to document the steps that led to this success and approached UN Women to support the project.
Unlike similar projects done by the Yugoslavian and Rwandan special courts, which limited themselves mostly to lessons learned by prosecutors, Oosterveld and her team interviewed Special Court prosecutors, investigators, defence counsel, judges, court psychologists, victim protection officers and former members of the court’s registry (the court department providing psychological assistance to the victims and protecting them before, during and after trial).
“We wanted to understand how the whole team worked with each other, their challenges and unique perspectives,” Oosterveld said.
She presented findings of these interviews at the Canadian Mission to the UN in New York, speaking to an audience of diplomats, UN representatives and others attending an annual meeting of the International Criminal Court.
The SCSL is having an impact elsewhere in the world where violence against women occurs. For example, the International Criminal Court is using the special court’s approach to prosecute forced marriages in the civil war in Uganda. The processes developed in Sierra Leone could also help collect evidence and effect justice for women in other conflict areas such as Syria and Iraq.