Tag Archives: war crimes tribunal

Interview with director of War Don Don

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.

I recently interviewed the film’s director, Rebecca Richman Cohen.  Cohen, a lawyer, worked on the defense team for Alex Tamba Brima in the AFRC-accused case before making this film.

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.

I was struck by a line by WayneI was struck by a line by Wayne Jordash, legal counsel for Issa Sesay: “You
can’t expect to [prosecute] just a few people and have an historical
narrative that is balanced.”  Can you elaborate on why a war crimes
trial might not be great at creating an historical narrative?
It’s not that they never do it well, but it is an expectation that is
really high to meet.  What courts do well is determine whether someone
is guilty.  Courts often make huge claims that are hard to live up to.
On BBC the other night I heard Prince Johnson defending his war time history with
political rhetoric, trying to shift away from the criminal language of the interviewer.  Of
all the Special Court trials, which defendant do you think most succeeded in
presenting their actions as political?  And why?
I don’t want to delve into this area, but the CDF trial was fascinating on that
level.  The court prosecuted Hinga Norman, and not President Kabbah.
But 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.  Combatants generally frame their
actions politically.
Do you think the judges found any of the “political” arguments persuasive?
Clearly judges did not find the defense cases persuasive.  They discarded it in a few pages. The issue of payment to prosecution witnesses was never adjudicated on a substantive level.  Judges dismissed it on a technicalities.
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 justice and the flaws in the trial.  I don’t think Sesay is an innocent man who got convicted, but there were problems with the prosecution’s case, hopefully we can avoid repeating these errors.
What is the biggest lesson future international war crimes tribunals should take from the Special Court?
The Special Court did some things quite well.  It’s outreach was quite effective.  It was the first major tribunal to take place where the crimes took place.  These are both important things.  The RUF trial was far too broad, and that made it hard to defend.  International criminal justice is very young.  Figuring out how to do it best is important.
I’ve blogged 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 did follow 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.  People are happy the RUF was held accountable for crimes.  The CDF trial was more complicated.
Was Sesay’s trial unique from other Special Court trials?  If so, in what ways?
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:  http://humanrightsdoctorate.blogspot.com/2010/09/war-don-don.html
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 of 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 from audiences of the film?
I just got back from spending 2 weeks in Sierra Leone to start our outreach campaign, partnering with other organizations.  Sierra Leonean audiences responded differently than American audiences.  Sierra Leoneans 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 of Special Court officials.  This seemed a very different but very human response.  I think the laughter made a lot of Westerners in the room uncomfortable.
Jordash, legal counsel for Issa Sesay: “You
can’t expect to [prosecute] just a few people and have an historical
narrative that is balanced.”  Can you elaborate on why a war crimes
trial might not be great at creating an historical narrative?
It’s not that they never do it well, but it is an expectation that is
really high to meet.  What courts do well is determine whether someone
is guilty.  Courts often make huge claims that are hard to live up to.
On BBC the other night I heard Prince Johnson defending his war time history with
political rhetoric, trying to shift away from the criminal language of the interviewer.  Of
all the Special Court trials, which defendant do you think most succeeded in
presenting their actions as political?  And why?
I don’t want to delve into this area, but the CDF trial was fascinating on that
level.  The court prosecuted Hinga Norman, and not President Kabbah.
But 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.  Combatants generally frame their
actions politically.
Do you think the judges found any of the “political” arguments persuasive?
Clearly judges did not find the defense cases persuasive.  They discarded it in a few pages. The issue of payment to prosecution witnesses was never adjudicated on a substantive level.  Judges dismissed it on a technicalities.
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 justice and the flaws in the trial.  I don’t think Sesay is an innocent man who got convicted, but there were problems with the prosecution’s case, hopefully we can avoid repeating these errors.
What is the biggest lesson future international war crimes tribunals should take from the Special Court?
The Special Court did some things quite well.  It’s outreach was quite effective.  It was the first major tribunal to take place where the crimes took place.  These are both important things.  The RUF trial was far too broad, and that made it hard to defend.  International criminal justice is very young.  Figuring out how to do it best is important.
I’ve blogged 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 did follow 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.  People are happy the RUF was held accountable for crimes.  The CDF trial was more complicated.
Was Sesay’s trial unique from other Special Court trials?  If so, in what ways?
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:  http://humanrightsdoctorate.blogspot.com/2010/09/war-don-don.html
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 of 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 from audiences of the film?
I just got back from spending 2 weeks in Sierra Leone to start our outreach campaign, partnering with other organizations.  Sierra Leonean audiences responded differently than American audiences.  Sierra Leoneans 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 of Special Court officials.  This seemed a very different but very human response.  I think the laughter made a lot of Westerners in the room uncomfortable.

“I looked into his eyes and saw no soul”: War Don Don review

“You can’t expect to [prosecute] just a few people and have an historical narrative that is balanced.”

Wayne Jordash, Issa Sesay's lawyer, during sentencing.

Wayne Jordash, Issa Sesay's lawyer, during sentencing.

That’s Wayne Jordash, who was lead counsel for former RUF commander Issa Sesay at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  The quote is from War Don Don, a fantastic documentary that explores the debates surrounding the Special Court by following Sesay’s trial.  (It’s showing in London and New York over the next few months.)

The director, Rebecca Richman Cohen, echoed Jordash’s sentiment in the Q&A: “One of the things these courts don’t do well is create an historical narrative.”

I’m persuaded by this argument.  Reading the damning Berkeley War Crimes Studies Center reports on the Special Court over the past year, I usually finish thinking, “Well, things aren’t going well.  But at least the Special Court is creating a narrative of what happened during the war.  That has some value.”  But this film changed my mind.  The Court is constructing a deeply flawed narrative.

That was my first take-away from this film.  My second take-away was that David Crane has an infuriatingly myopic understanding of Sierra Leone’s history, Sierra Leoneans, and humanity.  It is to the detriment of the Special Court’s legacy that he was its first prosecutor.  His offensive quotes were too numerous to list in full, but here are a few:

On Sesay: “I looked into his eyes and saw no soul.”

“Usually wars start for political or religious reasons…the Sierra Leone war started for criminal reasons…[The RUF] fought this for no reason, just criminal intent.”

On RUF fighters: “They’re very bad people.”

Issa Sesay testifying.

Issa Sesay testifying.

The film hit on many of the important and complicated Special Court challenges: outreach, apathy toward the trials, closed session testimony, joint criminal enterprise, witness compensation, and witness relocation.  I was especially impressed with the film’s attention to the implications of thinking about fighting factions as political v. criminal.  My sense is that Crane has convinced himself the RUF was purely criminal so that he doesn’t have to bother with internal debates about what he did as prosecutor.  Defense erred on the side of making the fighters seem too political.  In the end, the truth probably falls somewhere between these two extremes.

I can’t recommend this film enough.  (A Krio version will be coming out at some point.)  If you’ve already seen the film, and it sparked an interest in the Special Court, I highly recommend Tim Kelsall’s very readable Culture Under Cross-Examination: International Justice and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.   If you want learn more about Sesay’s trial/get angry about how Sesay’s trial was handled by the prosecution, check out this War Crimes Studies Center report, or my summary of it.

[Please note: I might not have transcribed perfectly the above quotes.]

Liberia, the ICC, and support for the idea of a national war crimes tribunal

This month’s International Center for Transitional Justice newsletter (page 3) highlights two developments in Liberia:

  1. A coalition of Liberian civil society groups is asking the Liberian government to reconsider its decision to go along with other African countries in refusing to comply with the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
  2. Stephen Rapp, the new US Ambassador for War Crimes, says the US and the international community will support the establishment of a war crimes tribunal for Liberia if the Liberian government requests one.