Found guilty of crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone's civil war, three rebel commanders will soon begin serving time for ordering the systematic mutilation of civilians, forced marriage of captured women, and the recruitment of child soldiers.
But the ripples of the international tribunal's decision on Wednesday in Freetown, Sierra Leone – finding rebel leaders Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon, and Augustine Gbao guilty on more than a dozen counts each of crimes against humanity – are already reaching around the continent and the world. Coming just a week before the expected arrest warrant for Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, and in the middle of the ongoing trial of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, this trial sets a very tough tone about the consequences of cruelty in wartime.
"The Sierra Leone decision is another notch on the slowly tightening belt of international accountability," says John Prendergast of the Enough Project, a Washington-based rights group. "This is a good day for potential future victims of crimes against humanity everywhere, as it takes the world a little further down the track of deterring future crimes."
Made famous by the movie "Blood Diamond," the civil war in Sierra Leone was a precursor to many wars of the current decade – most notably the Democratic Republic of Congo – where warlords and their ill-trained armies carry out horrific attacks on civilian populations. Nearly 500,000 people were either killed or mutilated between 1991 and 2002.
In Sierra Leone, rebel units often asked civilians if they wanted a "long sleeve" or a "short sleeve," and then chopped off a hand for the former answer, and the entire forearm for the latter answer. What paid for the mayhem was the global economic boom, and the world's appetite for Africa's natural resources, such as timber, gold, and diamonds.
Few other nations have witnessed brutality on the scale of the Sierra Leone conflict – made worse by Mr. Taylor's drive to control Sierra Leone's diamond trade – but experts say that warlords in other conflicts, such as in Congo, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and some would argue in Iraq, should take note of the proceedings in Sierra Leone.
"We've seen already that there is a rising expectation for international justice, and the beginnings of deterrence," says Stephen Rapp chief prosecutor of UN backed court in Sierre Leone, adding that "the case can be made" that Kenyan leaders pulled back from further violence during last year's ethnic clashes because they feared international prosecution.
"[The Sierra Leone verdict] sends a very clear message to warlords, not just in Africa, but all over the world who are doing this sort of crime," says David Monyae, a professor at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. "It's a good start, but at the same time, the [International Criminal Court] and those that are pro-ICC need to be very careful in terms of which countries get chosen for prosecution."
The danger, Mr. Monyae adds, is that by choosing weak, mainly African countries such as Sierra Leone, Congo, and Sudan for war-crimes prosecution, the ICC sends an unintentional signal that countries are not equal before the law.
"It's like Animal Farm by George Orwell, where some animals are better than others. In the cold war, [former Congolese dictator Mubutu Sese Seko] ordered torture and extra-judicial killings, but in Washington, President Reagan said, 'He's our dictator.' Same thing today with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which commit extrajudicial killings and nobody says a word. But if 'Mad Bob' [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe does it, people say, 'send him to The Hague.' It erodes the credibility of the international court."
In addition, there is a balance between justice and peace, says Monyae, noting that his own country, South Africa, chose peace in 1994, rather than jailing the country's top apartheid-era leaders for crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings and torture. "You can't just say that Bashir must go, because if he goes, does that mean more people are dying?"