Preventing a conflict relapse in West Africa with Legal prosecutions


By removing powerful figures with a history of employing violence and armed conflict from the political environment, establishing a historical record of events leading up to and during the war, and bringing the perpetrators of war crimes to justice, a series of transitional justice mechanisms helped to prevent a conflict relapse in West Africa.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), jointly established by the Government of Sierra Leone and the UN, worked from 2002 until 2013 to bring the individuals most responsible for the worst crimes of the war to justice. Of the thirteen people indicted by the court, two died before their trial was complete and nine were convicted, including the RUF leader Foday Sankoh and the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, who had backed the RUF during the war.1 By removing figures who had actively undermined the peace process such as Sankoh (who was arrested in 2000) and Taylor (who fled to Nigeria in 2003 and was arrested in 2006) from the political environment of West Africa, the likelihood of a conflict relapse was greatly reduced. Indeed, both had repeatedly demonstrated their contempt for a negotiated solution to the conflicts they were involved in and had met international efforts to end the fighting with violence. Furthermore, by publicly documenting the atrocities and crimes committed by such individuals and sending them to serve lengthy sentences abroad (in many cases, for the rest of their lives), the SCSL demonstrated the end of impunity for such crimes in the region, providing a major deterrence to future armed conflicts.2

The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SLTRC) was mandated to create ‘an impartial, historical record of the conflict’, ‘address impunity; respond to the needs of victims; promote healing and reconciliation; and prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered.’3 The Commission documented the testimonies of 450 individuals, recorded over 40,000 human rights violations, and located 113 mass graves.4 All of its proceedings were broadcast across the country via radio, providing a population scarred by over a decade of war with a detailed account of what had happened and who was responsible. In its 2004 final report, the Commission offered a series of legally binding recommendations. These included confronting the endemic corruption which it diagnosed as the central cause of the war with a new Bill of Rights, increased independence for the judiciary, and the strengthening of parliament.5 The SLTRC was followed, at its own recommendation, by a new permanent body which was tasked with continuing its work, the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL).6 Linking transitional justice processes to direct reductions in armed conflict is somewhat problematic, but in the case of West Africa the prosecution of Sankoh and Taylor demonstrably helped to prevent conflict relapses in Sierra Leone and Liberia.


2 Gillian Wigglesworth. “The End of Impunity? Lessons from Sierra Leone.” International Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 4. (2008); Owen Bowcott. “War criminal Charles Taylor to serve 50-year sentence in British prison.” The Guardian. (2013) Available at: (Accessed 14/12/2020); Douglas Farah. “Foday Sankoh Dies.” The Washington Post. (2003) Available at: (Accessed 14/12/2020)

3 United States Institute of Peace. Truth Commission: Sierra Leone. (2002) Available at: (Accessed 22/10/2020)

4 International Center for Transitional Justice. Challenging the Conventional: Case Studies – Sierra Leone. (ICTJ) Available at: (Accessed 22/10/2020)

5 United States Institute of Peace. Truth Commission: Sierra Leone. (2002)

6 Human Rights Commission Sierra Leone. History of Human Rights Commission Sierra Leone. (HRC-SL, 2016) Available at: (Accessed 14/12/2020)

Start Year


End Year



Liberia and Sierra Leone

UN Regional Group


Type of Conflict

Risk of a conflict relapse

Type of Initiative

Legal prosecutions

Main Implementing Organisation(s)

The governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia and the UN




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