On the sidelines of an IPI event on the Special Court of Sierra Leone, IPI’s Maureen Quinn spoke with two of the principals of the court, Justice Shireen Avis Fisher and Registrar Binta Mansaray. The principals of the Special Court are all women, which is a first in international justice.
Justice Fisher explained that the Special Court of Sierra Leone is a hybrid court in with international backing and participation, but staffed nationally, to help the justice and reconciliation process in that country to prosecute violators of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed after November 30, 1996 and during the 11-year Sierra Leone Civil War.
“What you find in most war-torn countries is a willingness to prosecute the crimes, and to try the crimes, but not the ability to do so because of the infrastructure destruction that occurs in any war situation,” said Ms. Fisher.
Ms. Fisher also said that a woman on the bench is not required in cases involving gender-based crimes. “I don’t know that gender makes a difference,” she said, adding, however, that gender is a factor in who you are. She said that training on gender issues for both men and women is extremely important.
In the second part of the interview, Registrar Binta Mansaray spoke about the ways in which the Special Court supports victims of these horrifically violent crimes during the trial, including offering a witness protection program.
“First of all, women are scared to come to the court,” Ms. Mansaray said, “Either they are afraid of retribution or reprisals from perpetrators, either they’re ashamed, or, for whatever reason, it’s difficult for them to come before the court.”
“But then a witness protection program walks them through the process of understanding how the court works, of understanding that once you go into the courtroom, it’s the judge’s court. You can be safe in the courtroom, and the perpetrators who played warlord, or who thought they had the power of life and death over people, they will be in the dark. They’re so powerless when they’re in there. So our witness protection unit is responsible to make sure that women understand that and have confidence in the judicial system before they go to the court.”
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Maureen Quinn: Good afternoon. I am Maureen Quinn, a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute, and we are very pleased to host on the Global Observatory today two of the principals of the Special Court for Sierra Leone: the President of the Court, Justice Shireen Avis Fisher, and the Registrar, Binta Mansaray.
There are four all-women principals of the Special Court, and you’re all speaking at an event tonight as we launch our series on Women, Peace, and Security. Very pleased to have you here.
Justice Fisher, I’d like to start by asking you about the court. In legal terms, the court is described as a hybrid court. Can you explain what that means for our audience? Now that the International Criminal Court has been established, do you see future use of similar arrangements?
Shireen Avis Fisher: A hybrid court in our situation is a court which has international backing and participation, but was established because of the request of the country of Sierra Leone, who was in partnership with the United Nations in putting together a court institution that is both international, in terms of resources, human and financial, and also national in terms of staff, judges, professional staff, and support staff, using both international law and domestic law.
Its advantage I think now that the Rome Statute has been accepted by so many states is that it’s a blueprint for complementarity. Under the Rome Statute, states that are willing and able to prosecute these crimes in their own country are given the opportunity to do so. What you find in most war-torn countries is a willingness to prosecute the crimes and to try the crimes, but not the ability to do so, because of the infrastructure destruction that occurs in any war situation.
That was the situation as it existed in Sierra Leone in 2000, and the government of Sierra Leone made the decision even before the Rome Statute. They innovated and made the decision to ask the United Nations to partner with them to create this court.
The advantage of the court is that it is located in the country where the crimes have been committed; it involves the people of the country who have expertise about the citizens and what they need, who know not only the geographic area, but the demographic area, and who can facilitate participation by those who are on the ground and those who are most affected by the work of the court. That, as it happens, is what happened in Sierra Leone, and the lessons we learned from that are lessons that can be shared with other countries that may wish to prosecute in these same situations.
MQ: The court’s statute mandates that prosecutorial and court support staff have experience in gender-related crimes, and now women fill all the four principle positions at the Special Court: the president, prosecutor, registrar, and principle defender, which is a first in international justice. How have these two elements influenced the court and its impact on crimes against women and girls? How important do you think training in gender-related crimes is for people working in international justice?
SAF: As to the first point, it’s an imponderable. The question always is, does it make a difference if it’s a woman on the bench? It makes a difference as to who’s on the bench, but I don’t know that gender specifically makes a difference. But gender is a part of who you are, and judges are made up of many facets and factors, and gender is one of them. So I don’t think there’s any way to measure the extent to which women’s involvement makes a difference.
I think the second part of your question though: to what extent is education and training in gender issues… and on the issue of gender sensitivity—I think that’s a very important question—and the answer to that is, it’s very important, and that’s important for men and women both. Because, although we may think that we, because of the fact that we are women, understand the situation of other women, there’s no way going into a situation, as we went into in Sierra Leone, that you do.
I mean you have to understand the cultural significance as well as the gender significance. Both male and female judges and staff who were working with women in very traumatic situations absolutely need to have training, both in the general area of gender sensitivity, but also specifically as to how that plays out in the culture in which you may have that impact.
MQ: Thank you very much Justice Fisher. I want to turn now to the registrar of the Special Court, Binta Mansaray, so thank you as well, Registrar Mansaray for joining us. Given your role in designing the court’s acclaimed outreach program, I want to ask you a few specific questions in that area. My first question is that the court’s outreach program is gender sensitive and encourages women to be participants of post-war justice, and not just the subjects of it–how did you take women’s views and inputs into account?
Binta Mansaray: Thanks for having me on your program. The outreach program we created, as you rightly point out, was extremely gender sensitive, and the reason for that–again, that relates to your question about how we take into account the views and inputs of women–as I explained to the people, the mandate of the court is very limited to those who bear the greatest responsibility for crimes committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996.
But then you have tens of thousands of women who suffered all sorts of human rights abuses: rape, sexual slavery, sexual violence, forced marriage, and so forth. While the court can bring to justice very few perpetrators of gender-based crimes, the reality is, we also have a limited number of women who would come forward to testify before the court. The question is, what happens to the tens of thousands who never get the chance to come forward and give testimony in court?
So what we did, we designed a gender outreach program using the article that lists the gender crimes to be prosecuted by the Special Court. We made that into a program and then engaged the largest society, the rest of the women who would never have the time or the opportunity to talk to the court, and explained to them that these crimes, do you recognize these crimes? Of course they do, because that’s what they lived during the war. We try to link the experiences with the testimonies given in court to show the court took into account the collective experiences of women, and have a limited number of women to tell the story. If you hear a woman testifying in court, that woman is also talking on your behalf.
Then the next aspect is the impunity gap. When it is about the greatest responsibility, the threshold is very high–you’re talking about leaders, very top leaders, not mid-level commanders, but top-commanders. But for the women, the tens of thousands who would never get the opportunity to come to court, those who bear the greatest responsibility are their neighbors, the ones they see every day. So the question was, women started asking, why weren’t the foot soldiers, our neighbors, why weren’t they brought to justice? Who determines who bears the greatest responsibility?
Then what we did, again, by way of the outreach program, we designed it based on the court’s statute, we established a link between the foot soldiers that they see in their neighborhoods with the commanders, and this way women were able to relate to the court’s work and get engaged and understand that yes, the court was working in the interest of all women and girls, not just the few who get to tell their story in court.
MQ: It’s extremely impressive what you all have done. As we know, crimes against women and the use of girls as so-called “bush wives” pose serious challenges for post-war justice in Sierra Leone. And even after the justice process, survivors of gender-based violence can be subject to a lot of social stigma and emotional trauma, as well as unique physical injuries. So I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about your witness protection program, which I believe took some of these gender-sensitive elements into account.
BM: We have an excellent witness protection program headed by somebody, Saleem Vahidy ,who is extremely well experienced in the area of witness protection. The goal of the Special Court’s witness protection program is to make sure that those who have the courage to come forward and testify do not suffer any harm on account of their testimony or appearance before the court.
In particular, the gender-sensitive aspect of it is, it took into account the painful experiences that women went through, and how it would be so difficult for women to relive those experiences in court; for instance, the humiliation of gang raping, sexual violence. Not all women would like to explain that kind of very personal experiences in public. So we have the option of a close-session testimony, where the judges will order close session as they deem necessary. We also have voice distortion, face distortion. We have, I think, written submissions as well, but that hasn’t been used as much but in camera testimony.
So this is all geared towards ensuring that women are not exposed to a situation where giving testimony would be very hard for them. So it’s on a case by case basis. Judges could order the type of protection that is necessary for a particular witness. It has worked extremely well.
These psychological, physical counseling services that are available also help women, because, first of all, women are scared to come to the court. Either they are afraid of retribution or reprisals from perpetrators, either they’re ashamed or, for whatever reason, it’s difficult for them to come before the court. But then a witness protection program walks them through the process of understanding how the court works, of understanding that once you go into the courtroom, it’s the judge’s court. You can be safe in the courtroom, and the perpetrators who played warlord, or who thought they had the power of life and death over people, they will be in the dark. They’re so powerless when they’re in there. So our witness protection unit is responsible to make sure that women understand that and have confidence in the judicial system before they go to the court.
MQ: My next question is, have you seen any evidence that the court’s prosecutions and its work on outreach have been having a deterrent effect on gender-based violence in Sierra Leone, and what has been the court’s contribution to reconciliation in Sierra Leone?
BM: As far as deterrent effect is concerned, it’s difficult to gauge, but what I can say, as the president referenced during a Security Council briefing, is a survey was conducted both in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where Sierra Leoneans and Liberians expressed their opinion about the court’s work, and a very impressive majority, 91 percent believed that the court contributed to the peace in the two countries, in Sierra Leone, and also a very good number believed that the Special Court can be trusted to bring justice to the people, so how that translates into concrete terms, in terms of deterrence, remains to be seen.
But I can tell you that the fact that people believe that this court brought peace to the country shows that it is having the kind of effect that could be a deterrent effect, in terms of how the court has contributed to reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a process that goes on and on and on. But so far, we’ve come a long way. It is only the Special Court that has a kind of outreach structure that we have in that country, and those structures, once you’ve set up community town hall meetings, you’ve set a forum for discussion. Let people talk about the war, discuss it, agree and disagree. That in itself is a very critical aspect of reconciliation that should be taken into account. We believe having an outreach program for over eight, nine years have contributed to that kind of democratic discourse about peace and reconciliation.
Again, you talk about the very message that the court is sending, that no one is above the law. That is significant, because it gives victims a measure of peace, and we believe that the court has contributed greatly to peace and reconciliation in Sierra Leone.
MQ: Justice Fisher, if I can wrap this up by turning back to you with a future-oriented question. Given that the Special Court for Sierra Leone will soon complete its mandate, what will be the role of the residual court, going forward?
SAF: The residual court will have three purposes: one will be to protect witnesses; one will be to maintain the archives; and the third will be to oversee the prisoners that have already been convicted. All three of those will continue well into the future.
In terms of witness protection, I would see that as the most important role, because as Binta pointed out, there is a promise made to the witnesses, that they will not be harmed by virtue of their having the courage to come forward and testify. When we say that they will not be harmed, we don’t mean they won’t be harmed as long as the Special Court is in existence; we mean they will not be harmed. In order to make sure that that happens, we need to have additional outreach, ongoing outreach, to let people know that if there is an attempt to tamper with witnesses, there will be a response from the court, and that response is an investigation, and if warranted, a prosecution for contempt.
This is not a meaningless, fanciful thought. In the last year, because the word has gotten out that we are close to the end of our mandate, we have had seven people who have been brought forward on contempt charges. One has been convicted and gone through the appeal process and has been sentenced to two years in jail. Four more have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing. One is involved in the trial process now, and another has just been arrested last weekend.
So we are hoping that by responding quickly and aggressively, at this stage, that in the future we will have made it easier for the residual court, both in terms of establishing jurisprudence on contempt, but also perhaps dissuading others who might try to engage in the same sorts of activities. So the role of the residual court will go into the future as long as there are witnesses to protect, and that could be many years, and as long as there are prisoners that have to be overseen, and that also could be many years.
The message that we are trying to share with those who would support the efforts of the court is that that will be funded by voluntary funding, and that although it’s a very small amount in the general scheme of things, it’s between one and two million per year of US dollars with a court staff that’s miniscule, that nonetheless it needs to continue, and we need to not allow the world to forget about Sierra Leone and the accomplishments of the Special Court, because if we don’t follow through, if we don’t keep faith with the witnesses, it will not only have impact on the legacy of the Special Court and work that it’s done, but it’ll have impact on international justice generally, because if one witness is harmed in this process, other witnesses will not come forward.
MQ: Thank you for joining us today on the Global Observatory.
About the photo: Registrar Binta Mansaray (left) and Justice Shireen Avis Fisher