This is a joint-post with Alaina Varvaloucas. Varvaloucas is a student at Yale Law School and formerly worked for Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of African Economies, based in Freetown.
Yesterday, after 9 years and nearly $250 million dollars spent, the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague sentenced former Liberian President Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison after convicting him on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor's trial has been an important milestone in the struggle to end impunity for tyrants and mass murderers. But the international community's guilt-ridden obsession with pursuing the Charles Taylors of the world is skewing the allocation of resources in war-torn countries toward celebrity trials and away from poor people with limited access to justice.
The entire budget for Sierra Leone's domestic justice sector is roughly $13 million per year, including the Sierra Leone Police, the Prisons Department, all levels of the court system, and the various human rights and legal services commissions. There are just 12 magistrates for the whole country outside of Freetown, and they hear between 4,000 to 5,000 criminal cases per year. The lack of judges, lawyers, and police investigators –even the lack of a few cents in cell phone credit to contact witnesses that might implicate or exonerate a defendant –is a serious obstacle to a functional justice system.
In contrast, a quick tally using the Special Court’s annual budget reports reveal costs of approximately $175 million for the prosecutions of 13 other defendants in Freetown, in addition to the hefty bill for Taylor’s trial in the Hague. And the Special Court boasted 11 judges and hundreds of staff members for its 14 cases spread over the past nine years. Add on the testimony of Naomi Campbell, and it appears international war crimes have become a red-carpet affair.
During months of surveys we conducted in prisons and police stations around Sierra Leone with our colleague Bilal Siddiqi and the Open Society Justice Initiative, almost every inmate and detainee we interviewed was dealing with the uncertainty of court delays while living in squalid conditions and trying to figure out whom one could bribe to speed up a case. One man we interviewed in northern Sierra Leone, an area particularly hard-hit by the war, had been awaiting trial for months for the horrendous crime of stealing batteries. Another man in eastern Sierra Leone, who was quickly hidden from view, had sores covering his entire body. And one teenager in western Sierra Leone had been imprisoned with adults for six years, and had yet to be convicted.
Granted, Taylor’s trial served several important functions. As Wikileaks revealed, politicians in both Liberia and the United States view Taylor’s incarceration as crucial to regional stability. Certainly nobody, least of all Sierra Leoneans who lived through a brutal civil war, wants Taylor roaming free.
And beyond keeping Taylor off the streets or deterring future war criminals, one of the main goals of international criminal tribunals is to serve as an example to the world of how much process is due a defendant, regardless of the crimes he is accused of committing. But the realistic counterfactual to the hundreds of millions spent on Taylor’s trial was not an unjust trial. It was a swifter trial, likely arriving to the same conclusion, but with a less expensive venue and not-so-high-priced defense attorneys—not to mention fewer conjugal visits for Taylor, no fancy Dutch food or internet access, and no rabbinical visits to indulge his new interest in Judaism.
While we respect the Special Court’s high standards, this extravagant expenditure presents stark budgetary trade-offs. The absurdly high standard for due process at the Special Court that tried Taylor only serves to highlight the poor state of affairs in the not-so-special courts that serve the average Sierra Leonean, where detainees wait months for a hearing for minor crimes, bribery is a prerequisite for bail, and only a tiny share of defendants outside of Freetown enjoy any legal representation at trial.
Yes, it is important for peace and stability in the region that Charles Taylor has been brought to justice. But small-scale grievances that are ignored to pay for Taylor’s lavish trial—individual thefts and assaults that go unpunished, and innocent defendants that languish in jail with no trial—also put peace and stability in jeopardy. Indeed, Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that such inequalities in the justice system were a leading cause of the war.
So congratulations to the Special Court on concluding the trial. But in the future, let’s hope some of the due process afforded to one of the world’s most notorious murderers trickles down to the communities he helped destroy.