War Don Don, a documentary that looks at debates surrounding the Special Court for Sierra Leone through the lens of the trial of former RUF leader Issa Sesay, will be on HBO Wednesday night (8:00 – 9:30 PM, EST). I reviewed the film earlier this year here.
Below are excerpts from the interview. At many points I paraphrase Cohen.
What is the biggest lesson future international war crimes tribunals should take from the Special Court?
The Special Court did some things quite well. Its outreach was quite effective. It was the first major tribunal to take place where the crimes took place. These are both important things. On a critical note, I believe that the scope of the indictment for the RUF-accused was far too broad, and that made it hard to defend. Also, I believe there could have been a more nuanced approach to sentencing. But international criminal justice is still very young. Figuring out how to do it best is important.
I’ve written a lot about outreach and the Charles Taylor trial. It seems to me most Liberians and Sierra Leoneans are not following the Taylor trial. Do you think they followed the Freetown-based Special Court trials?
Following the trial is not a measure of success per se. Not many Sierra Leoneans followed the day-to-day proceedings of the trial. But it’s not reasonable to expect that in the aftermath of war. People are still struggling with poverty, working long hours. While feelings about the Court were really mixed, people knew what it was. They understood its mandate. Attitudes about the Court depend on how you ask the question. If you ask, “Does the RUF leadership deserve to be prosecuted?” the answer in Sierra Leone would overwhelmingly be yes. If you ask, “Would you rather have Sesay be prosecuted or use the money for food for your family?” you’ll get a very different answer. And both are acceptable ways to ask the question. Many Sierra Leoneans were happy that some of the RUF leadership was held accountable for their crimes.
Was Sesay’s trial unique from other Special Court trials?
In many ways no. All trials were plagued by questions about payments to prosecution witnesses. Sesay’s case was unique in that it raised interesting questions about sentencing–ways his role in bringing peace to Sierra Leone might have mitigated his sentence. He’s serving the equivalent of a life sentence, given his age. Sentencing was an opportunity for the court to take into account a more holistic idea of his crimes and the nature of crimes committed by his subordinates, but also some of the important things he did to end the war.
As an aside, here’s an excerpt on the issue of sentencing from the blog of William Schabas, a professor of human rights law and former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
Personally, I remain troubled by the sentences that were imposed by the judgment (and upheld on appeal), and I had the impression that Rebecca does too. Sesay really got nothing in mitigation, receiving several concurrent sentences of which the highest is 52 years. The reasoning is not adequately explained in the sentencing judgment, which was upheld on appeal. The judgment condemns him to 35 years [for] extermination, 40 years for murder, 45 years for rape and 50 years for recruitment of child soldiers. Does that make any sense? I would have thought extermination was worse than murder, given that it involves multiple murders, and that both are more important than recruiting child soldiers. Nothing in the reasons helps to understand this. One might have thought that this was because of particular brutality or horror in specific acts perpetrated by Sesay. But he is convicted, essentially, as a leader and not a direct perpetrator, so that cannot provide an explanation.
What has been most surprising to you about the reaction of audiences to the film?
Sierra Leonean audiences responded to the film differently than American audiences. Sierra Leoneans frequently laughed through a lot of the film. They laughed through parts that were ironic, and parts of testimony where they assumed witnesses were lying. Sierra Leoneans were not persuaded by parts of the rhetoric that Americans might find more persuasive. This seemed a very different but very human response. I think the laughter made a lot of Westerners in the room uncomfortable.
On BBC the other night I heard former Liberian warlord and current presidential candidate Prince Johnson defending his war time history with political rhetoric, trying to shift away from the criminal language of the interviewer. This was a common theme in the Special Court trials. Of all the Special Court trials, which defendant do you think most succeeded in presenting their actions as political?
Whatever side you’re on, it’s impossible to justify crimes against civilians. There’s not a political end that lets you justify crimes against civilians. Any of the defendants would say there were political motivations behind what they did. The question is: are they justifying the crimes – or their reasons for fighting. Combatants generally frame their actions politically.
Do you think the Special Court defendants, and Sesay specifically, got a fair trial?
Obviously it’s how you define fair. This is not a film about a miscarriage of justice. It’s a film about the nature of justice. I don’t think Sesay is an innocent man who was wrongly convicted for crimes for which he had nothing to do with. But I do think there were problems with the prosecution’s case. It’s about how you define justice.