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The ICC, the Sierra Leone situation, and misconceptions

By Mohamed Konneh

On 17th July 1998, 120 States adopted a statute in Rome - known as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court establishing the International Criminal Court. For the first time in the history of humankind, States decided to accept the jurisdiction of a permanent international court for the prosecution of the perpetrators of the most serious crimes committed in their territories or by their nationals after the entry into force of the Rome Statute on 1 July 2002.The International Criminal Court is not a substitute for national courts and this is important giving legitimacy to countries.

The Rome Statute is very clear on its duties and responsibilities: that is every State party reserved the right to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for crimes committed in their countries. The International Criminal Court can only intervene where a State is unable or unwilling genuinely to carry out the investigation and prosecute perpetrators. The primary mission of the International Criminal Court is to help put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community, and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes.

Understanding the International Criminal Court: The International Criminal Court (The ICC) is a permanent international court established to investigate, prosecute and try individuals accused of committing the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole, namely the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.

Unfortunately, many of these violations of international law have remained unpunished. The Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals were established in the wake of the Second World War. In 1948, when the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted, the United Nations General Assembly recognised the need for a permanent international court to deal with the kinds of atrocities which had just been perpetrated.

However, while negotiations on the ICC Statute were underway at the United Nations, the world was witnessing the commission of heinous crimes in the territory of the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. In response to these atrocities, the United Nations Security Council established an ad hoc tribunal for each of these situations. These events undoubtedly had a most significant impact on the decision to convene the conference which established the ICC in Rome in the summer of 1998.

Countries that have accepted these rules are known as States Parties and are represented in the Assembly of States Parties.

Over 120 countries are States Parties to the Rome Statute, representing all regions: Africa, the Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Western European and North America.

The seat of the Court is in The Hague in the Netherlands. The Rome Statute provides that the Court may sit elsewhere whenever the judges consider it desirable.

It is basic fact that the ICC is a permanent autonomous court, whereas the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as other similar courts established within the framework of the United Nations to deal with specific situations only have a limited mandate and jurisdiction. For example the Special Court of Sierra Leone was established to try perpetrators of war crimes and those who bear the greatest responsibility of committing children in the war, force labour enslavement of women and gils.

The ICC does not replace national criminal justice systems; rather, it complements them. It can investigate and, where warranted, prosecute and try individuals only if the State concerned does not, cannot or is unwilling genuinely to do so. This might occur where proceedings are unduly delayed or are intended to shield individuals from their criminal responsibility. This is known as the principle of complementarity, under which priority is given to national systems. States retain primary responsibility for trying the perpetrators of the most serious of crimes.

The Sierra Leone situation:

For the past years Sierra Leone has witnessed protests, social unrest, and violence of different kinds. This country has also witnesses’ repression of democratic expression and when the voices of oppressed people are suppressed, when violence by state securities becomes unbearable, the end products are social unrest and mass protests.

The last ten to twelve years have witnessed all of these and today’s crisis in Sierra Leone is no exception. In 2012 President Julius Maada Bio then opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party flagbearer was stone on the head in Bo City during a campaign trail.

Also in 2008 just after former President Ernest Bai Koroma takes over the reins of government the diamond rich district of Kono witnessed an uprising leading to the killing of two people. A commission of enquiry was set up and findings brought forward. This was followed by a government white paper; no action has been taking up till today since that peaceful protest that turns violent.

In 2016 also three people were killed in Kabala after a peaceful protest turns violent involving young people over a youth project that removed from the district.

Bubuna in Northern Sierra Leone also had its own share of the riot in 2010 leading to the killing of two young people and injuring many more. A commission was also set up again and was followed by government white paper.

Fast forward to current government after President Julius Maada Bio, ascended to the seat of power the country has witnessed series of unrests. Some politically motivated while others misinformation and misunderstanding among young people on certain government policies and action.

The riot at Pademba road saw the killing of thirty inmates while in Tombo two people lost their lives during riot in the fishing town. In Makeni also deem the northern headquarter and stronghold of the Opposition All Peoples Congress, six people lost their lives after information about removing government standby power generator went viral.

Several findings have been put forward and calls on government to institute an independent investigation especially on the Makeni violence and killing.

Many of these protests have led to the destruction of property and loss of lives and the need to bring perpetrators to book.


A well-informed public can contribute to guaranteeing lasting respect for and the enforcement of international justice. Despite one could argue that much is yet to be seen or done and to punish those responsible for these unrest and killings, none of these meet the ICC threshold.

It is no gain saying that police beatings and killings are justified and in such an instance even where the claim is supposedly in the defense of life and property.

There is a long history of anti-democratic regimes resorting to such cynicism, from arrest and murder of activists and journalists opposed to late Siaka Steven’s one-party rule in Sierra Leone during the 1970s and 1980s, to political party activities since the return of democratic rule in 1996.

It is with this historical context of the nature and character that we must consider the crises in Sierra Leone and how best we as a people will be able to resolve it rather than outsider. There is every need to ask question as to why have random violence become a regular norm in Sierra Leone. Why has random violence and youth protests commence and why have they continued?

But let come back to the ICC and it misconception of the situation in Sierra Leone.

Are as a country have we experiencing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression after the ICC was established? Has the governments both past and present done what they are supposed to do in dealing with these unrests? What about our criminal justice system are they unable to handle cases of such nature? Also are authorities genuinely not able to handle the current situation? These are questions we need to provide answers to and when once this is done we will be able to draw references to the ICC and domestic affairs. I rest my case.

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