July 30, 2003 The death of Sierra Leonean rebel leader, Foday Saybanah Sankoh, should not diminish in any way the importance of the UN-backed Special Court which had indicted him and others for crimes against humanity, said Partnership Africa Canada today. Sankoh was the founder and former leader of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), responsible for a 10-year rebel war which resulted in the death of thousands of innocent civilians. The RUF was notorious for its brutality – its trademark was to chop off the hands and feet of women, men, children and even babies as a means of intimidation and control.
Sankoh, who was in prison awaiting trial, died of natural causes on July 29. A statement from the Special Court for Sierra Leone noted that he was “granted the peaceful end that he denied to so many others”. Last week, the court had rejected a request to drop charges against Sankoh on health grounds. Sankoh was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in March 2003.
The death of Foday Sankoh means that he will not have to account for his role in Sierra Leone’s rebel war which officially ended in January 2002. He will not be brought to justice for his leadership and involvement in the murderous and destructive activities of the RUF which resulted in the death of more than 50,000 civilians, the displacement of half of the population and the destruction of two-thirds of the country’s infrastructure, bringing development to a halt in Sierra Leone. “Sankoh's trial and conviction for crimes against humanity in a transparent and internationally mandated Court would have had the added benefit of exposing the criminal and mercenary nature of his brand of "revolution" which destroyed so many lives, including many young ones,” notes Lansana Gberie, Research Associate with Partnership Africa Canada and a former journalist in Sierra Leone who first interviewed Sankoh in Côte d’Ivoire in 1996.
“It is important that his death not undermine interest in the Special Court, which is a profoundly important experiment in post-conflict justice in Sierra Leone,” said Mr. Gberie. Partnership Africa Canada believes that the Special Court for Sierra Leone must continue its important task of prosecuting those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law. This includes Charles Taylor, the Liberian president and former warlord, who helped finance and train the RUF in Sierra Leone. Taylor has been indicted by the Special Court for “bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law.” The continued military stalemate in Liberia and the refusal of the international community to take appropriate action has led to a humanitarian catastrophe in Liberia, with no end in sight.
In recent years, Partnership Africa Canada brought international attention to the rebel war in Sierra Leone, revealing how diamonds motivated the Revolutionary United Front and paid for their weapons and their brutality. The report “The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security”, published in January 2000 and subsequent Occasional Papers on diamonds in West Africa are available online.