Sylvain Savolainen

Reporter / Photographer

Sierra Leone

War on trial

Swiss Press Photo 2007: Award for best foreign feature
At the dawn of the 21st century, one of the notions which tends to gradually impose itself is the notion of international criminal justice. From the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to the International Criminial Court and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, from the debate on the illegality of the United States’ pre-emptive war in Iraq to the notions of genocide, humanitarian interference or crime of aggression, these issues are being discussed through the viewpoint of international criminal law. Whether it’s considered a reference or an object of scorn, international criminal law is becoming a concept that can’t be ignored. Where does Sierra Leone fit in?

Most of the wars being fought today are civil or internal wars. Although conflicts between states are the focus of international relations, they are rare. The war in Sierra Leone started in 1991, and when it ended, officially on 1st January 2002, 200’000 people had been killed, and another 2’000’000 displaced. Eleven years. During these eleven years of conflict, the worst atrocities were committed: campaigns of mass amputations, rape, mutilations, slavery, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those eleven years represent a continuous gush of violence in a country where the resulting wounds and trauma are still terribly present today.

The fact that the war took place between 1991 and 2002 is far from insignificant. The decade during which Sierra Leone was engulfed in war represents a transition point between two centuries, a passage from the 20th to the 21st century. This conflict is also an illustration of the typical war scenario of our time.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, established by a bilateral Agreement dated 16 January 2002 between the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone, is competent to judge those who bear the greatest responsibility for the most serious violations of humanitarian law, for crimes against humanity and for violations of the Geneva Conventions during the conflict, especially from 1996 to 2002. The court is currently examining the main criminals who have been charged by the court and its prosecutor. Charles Taylor is considered to be the main defendant in the case of the Sierra Leonian war.

Ever since its outbreak, the war in Sierra Leone has been the gripping and breathtaking stage for today’s main issues and stakeholders: finance, the trade of natural resources –for instance, the world’s most valued diamonds–, the US-UK partnership policy, the crisis of the UN, realpolitik, terrorism, the Hezbollah, Al-Qaïda, the war in Iraq, and the emerging of modern international criminal law.

All these elements fit together to form a thrilling puzzle that unfolds like a spy novel.

The diamonds of Sierra Leone are at the heart of the conflict. Diamonds and their international trade are the defining element of this war, from its beginning to its conclusion and aftermath.

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), an armed group that went on a rampage across the country, often recruited young so-called rebels from the ranks of exploited workers in diamond mines. The diamond-rich areas also served as backup for the rebel troops, given the role of this resource in financing the war. During that time, the government of Sierra Leone hired South African and British mercenaries to face the RUF. These private armies received, in compensation for their support, exclusive mining concessions for the largest diamond mines in Sierra Leone.

By judgement dated 18 May 2012 the Trial Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone found guilty Charles Taylor -former president of Liberia- as the main instigator of the conflict in Sierra Leone.

Sylvain Savolainen’s feature examines the emergence of international criminal law, by looking at the attempt of the Special Court for Sierra Leone to pursue justice in a country torn apart by the brutality and horror of war.

It is also the story of a tug-of-war and forgotten war. It is an insight into the mechanics of a war. And not just any war, but the one that bridges two distinct centuries. It tells the story of our time, and of our particular wars.

It raises and answers the following questions:

  • What did the war in Sierra Leone feed on?
  • How was it financed?
  • What was the role of diamonds, and generally speaking the diamond trade?
  • What is the impact of civil wars, whether conscious or indirect?
  • What is the role of the ethnic and religious aspect in a conflict? Is it really an engine of war?
  • Why is a country more likely to go to war?
  • Why is it that the most prevalent type of war is civil war?
  • Do we know exactly how to stop or fuel a conflict?
  • Which factors prolong or limit a conflict?
  • If there are clearly people who bear responsibilities for the crimes commited, who are those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity? According to which criteria is this determined? And in which manner can they be judged?