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Sierra Leone's Truth & Reconciliation Commission - 2002-08-06

The TRC, as it is known, became law in February 2000. It is part of the Lomé Peace Agreement, signed by the government of Sierra Leone and the rebel Revolutionary United Front. Members of the commission began working on July 5th of this year. Although a blanket amnesty offered in the Lomé Peace Agreement may have its advantages, most people say it does not augur well for national unity and reconciliation. They say such an amnesty would mean that the perpetrators of some of the most gruesome crimes in Sierra Leone's war will be free men and women, but their victims will not be compensated. According to Bishop Joseph Humper, who is the Chairman of the TRC, justice is a pre-condition for reconciliation. He says if the victims of human rights abuses are denied justice, there is every likelihood they will take the law into their own hands and seek retribution. "The Commission has as its basic premise to be victim oriented, Bishop Humper says," because so far, what we've seen done, is that presently it is perpetrator oriented. We want to change the cycle to be victim oriented in the sense that we pay attention to those who have been hurt, at the same time paying attention to those who had committed the acts". Bishop Humper says unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Nigeria, the one in Sierra Leone has a different mandate. "It's not the same as that in South Africa, in that in South Africa, they had an amnesty component. We are not a judicial body to have that component; it is not part of our mandate. Secondly, we're yet the only country that has two institutions in the country addressing one issue in the country."

The other institution is the UN Special Court set up by the United Nations Security Council. It will try key people who bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities. But some question whether the two institutions are in conflict with each other. Bishop Humper disagrees. "I do not see any conflict between the special court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The special court is a judicial body, judicial oriented, legal oriented. The TRC is people oriented, people focus and it's not a judicial court. That is the essential difference between the two. Their mandates are specific and clear."

More importantly, Bishop Humper adds, the special court is limited in its mandate because it can only look at cases from November 1996 to 2000. The TRC's mandate, on the other hand, begins from March 23rd, 1991 --when the first rebel attack took place -- to July 7th, 1999, when the Lome peace accord was signed. He says the timelines are so different that one cannot compare them". Already questions have been raised in Sierra Leone about the fairness and independence of the commission. Those concerned say justice in Sierra Leone is a relative term and that it's given based on how much money one can afford. A point Bishop Humper hastens to rebuff. "I don't see us not rendering justice where justice should be rendered otherwise this country would have been a chaotic country where there is no law and order. Justice is a relative term and it depends on how people perceive it. We've seen great countries rendering injustice in the name of justice. What I'm trying to express here is that we perceive justice from our understanding of the nature of the case and the situation in point. And so we feel that this allegation that Sierra Leone is known for not rendering justice is untenable, unacceptable and unfounded".

The TRC is expected to look into abuses committed by all parties to the conflict. These include the RUF, Civil Defense Forces, the Armed Forced Revolutionary Council, Government forces and officials and other civilians, as well as peacekeepers. Its term may last for up to 18 months. The commission will encourage people to voluntarily tell their stories. But if necessary, it may compel people to testify and conduct any investigation deemed essential to learning the truth. At the discretion of the TRC, people will be allowed to provide information on a confidential basis and the TRC will not be compelled to disclose any information given in confidence. It will also have special measures for the protection of witnesses and victims who tell their stories. Bishop Humper says coming out into the open to tell the truth about what actually happened can heal the victim and liberate the perpetrators. He says without the truth, as hard as it may be, there can be no real reconciliation.