Transitional Justice and SSR: The case of Sierra Leone By: Chris Bordeleau | Sierra Leone | Apr 8, 2013

Academics, think tanks, and non-government organizations (NGOs) alike are starting to take notice of the relationship between transitional justice and security sector reform (SSR).[1]

Transitional justice measures and SSR programs share the goal to have accountable security institutions, especially as a state’s security forces are often held responsible for human rights violations that occur during civil conflict or during authoritarian rule.

The two can be mutually reinforcing. Transitional justice measures, such as criminal prosecutions, can set new norms of behaviour for police officers and military officials and serve as a deterrent for future abuses. Truth commissions can provide detailed information about the causes of conflict and human rights violations, in addition to identifying individuals and institutions that are responsible for abuses. Thus, transitional justice measures often highlight security reforms that should be prioritized. In reverse, SSR can enhance the state’s capacity to carry out transitional justice, as well as aid in implementing changes that come about as a result of transitional justice measures.

Although they can be mutually reinforcing, the sequencing of transitional justice and SSR is crucial. For example, if a truth commission’s recommendations are published after SSR has begun, the recommendations can become irrelevant. Or, if no SSR has occurred, then the security sector may be largely immune to the effects of transitional justice, and may even interfere in transitional justice. In either case, the effectiveness of both efforts are lost.

Beyond the importance of effective sequencing, an incomplete process of transitional justice can also be detrimental to SSR. Using the case of Sierra Leone, one could argue that transitional justice was never completed and, as a result, new norms for behaviour and effective deterrents for future abuses among security personnel were never established. The process was flawed from the beginning. The Lomé Peace Agreement (1999) granted amnesty to all combatants, including members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), as a means of ensuring an end to the conflict.  When the RUF continued to violate the Lomé agreement, the Government of Sierra Leone appealed to the international community to create a court to prosecute rebel leaders and to incentivize the RUF to abide by the peace agreement. Some of the highest-level perpetrators were ultimately prosecuted in the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), but all of the indictees were members of paramilitary groups or rebel factions. To date, state security personnel have yet to face charges. In short, the process of transitional justice was seriously hamstrung.

Despite these interruptions to the transitional justice process, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did identify the causes of the civil war and produced recommendations that provide the basis for SSR. It concluded that endemic corruption, greed and nepotism precipitated the state’s collapse. In addition, the TRC’s report devoted a great deal of its attention to “historical and political antecedents” to the conflict, particularly the inequalities between Freetown (“the Colony”) and the rural chiefdoms (“the Protectorate”), as well as the legacy of single-party rule beginning in 1968. The Commission’s resulting conclusions focused heavily on institutional and constitutional reform in order to address these root causes of the conflict.

However, the ultimate success of the TRC’s recommendations for SSR hinged on new norms of behaviour that had failed to materialize due to the interrupted process of transitional justice.

This is not to say that no reforms have taken place. With massive support from the United Kingdom, the government of Sierra Leone has sought to improve civilian control over the police, military and intelligence services. The 2007 elections attracted a great deal of praise for the newly reformed security forces. Not only was power transferred to an opposition party peacefully, but it was also done without the support of UN peacekeeping forces. There has been no suggestion of military involvement in elections, even despite the presence of former army chief Julius Maada Bio in the 2012 presidential elections. In short, the military seems to be keeping its distance from politics.

However, the Sierra Leone Police continue to rank as the most corrupt institution in the country, despite measures to ensure accountability.

While the focus on “measures of accountability” appears to be a laudable goal, it is actually the biggest cause for concern regarding the success of SSR in Sierra Leone. Focusing on accountability or prosecution may hold up fine in countries with minimal corruption, but in countries with rampant corruption these measures amount to merely treating the symptoms of a lack of good governance. This “technocratic” fix does not focus on the broader (and more difficult) political issues and the conditions that invite corruption and human rights violations. In fact, the Government of Sierra Leone has been resistant to address the deeper issues, leaving many Sierra Leoneans dissatisfied with the lack of progress — a lack of progress that they attribute to the corruption of the government and its agencies.

The story of Sierra Leone’s SSR and transitional justice programs is a cautionary tale. Transitional justice and SSR processes are so closely related that, without proper sequencing, they can have strongly negative effects on post-conflict peacebuilding. In fact, it may very well be that the relationship borders on mutual dependence.


Chris Bordeleau is a Research Intern at the Security Governance Group.

[1]For example, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) explored this mutually reinforcing (and sometimes mutually detrimental) relationship in 2006. In 2010, the International Center for Transitional Justice conducted similar research.

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