War Crimes Court Economics: Who Will Pay and Will it Boost Liberia’s Struggling Economy?

Lawmakers were joined by scores of Liberians in 2018 at a civil war monument in Du Port Road, Paynesville to announce the resolution seeking the establishment of a war and economic crimes court/ Photo By: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni

Freetown, Sierra Leone — Patrick Fatoma spends his days guiding guests around the fading halls of the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone. It’s a job he has held for nearly a decade since the official close of Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2013.

Fatoma’s guests include tourists, curious aid workers and researchers who come to study the archives and see the place where ten perpetrators who “bore the greatest responsibility” for the horrors that left 50,000 people dead during Sierra Leone’s 11-year conflict, were held to account for their crimes. Most famous among those convicted here was former Liberian president Charles Taylor who became the first former African leader to be convicted of war crimes.

The income generated by the Residual Court, and a Peace Museum housed inside, is just the tail end of what was a large infusion of money into the Sierra Leonean economy during the 11-year lifetime of the Special Court. The court, the first to be funded by voluntary contributions from donor countries, spent $300m over its lifetime and employed 400 people, many of them Sierra Leoneans, during its busiest periods.

This court building alone cost US$4.6 million in construction from scratch, and millions of dollars more were used locally for procurement of materials and services. 

A war crimes court in Liberia could also bring some much-needed jobs and foreign currency into the struggling economy according to Liberian economist Samuel Jackson. A bill to establish a court has received 52 votes in the House of Representatives which is more than the 41 signatures threshold required for the resolution to move to the Senate for concurrence and passage into law.

L-R: Grand Bassa County Representative Thomas Goshua, Nimba County Representative Larry Younquoi and Margibi County Lawmaker Arvin Jones look on as Representative Rostylyn Dennis of Montserrado County reads a draft of the resolution calling for the establishment of the war and economic crimes tribunal | Photo By: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni

Any impact would be dwarfed by the United Nations Mission in Liberia where US$552 million and 15,000 staff translated into an estimated economic impact of US$827 million. But even at the level of the Sierra Leone Court, the impact could be important.

“In a poor and depressed economy like Liberia’s, any kind of spending will spur some aggregate demand, but the magnitude would depend upon the size of the court and the inclusion of foreign nationals,” Jackson wrote in an email. “If they bring a lot of foreign judges and experts it will have a lot of support and it will have some significant impact on the local economy.”

The size and make up of any court in Liberia would be far into the future but experts say the Sierra Leone court, with so many similar challenges and cases, offers a strong guide.

Fatoma was one of hundreds of Sierra Leoneans whose lives changed as a result of work with the Sierra Leone Court after its inception in 2002. Fatoma, who before his recruitment as an Outreach Officer worked as a teacher, saw his monthly income jump from $25 a month to $6000 he claims.

“I was able to take care of my home and at the same time take care of other people’s home and my extended family including paying the university fees of my three younger brothers and also helped relatives who desperately needed major medical attention,” Fatoma says. “These were benefits that the Court brought – and I’m not the only person. This was not money coming from the government of Sierra Leone. That was an economic benefit because it went back to Sierra Leoneans”.

The economic question has been a key argument among opponents of a war crimes court in Liberia who claim it will create financial burden for an already struggling economy.

Adama Dempster, a long-time human rights activist and war crimes court campaigner, dismisses that argument. He says international donors will not expect Liberia to pay for the court. He says Liberia can follow Sierra Leone’s lead and set up a voluntary fund. Funding for “accountability mechanisms for grave crimes” are either “fixed or secured; voluntary or sometimes a combination of all,” says Dempster.

The Sierra Leone Court’s costs were covered by international donors at a rough ratio of 26 percent by the United States, 20 percent by the Netherlands, 16 percent by the UK. A shortfall in voluntary contribution was patched by UN grants. In the chaos after the wars engulfed the region in the 1990s and sent thousands of refugees out of the country, the international community had considerable interest in supporting the Sierra Leone court. With a global pandemic raging and ongoing wars in the Middle East, it’s not clear the international community would feel so compelled to step up to support a court in Liberia.

The Special Court of Sierra Leone (pictured) in Free Town was funded by the international community | Photo By: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni

Dempster is confident financial support will be forthcoming. Once international crimes are punishable under international laws, there should be international funding to support such a cause, says Dempster. “Let us not use lack of funding by the government as the basis for not wanting to establish a war crimes court here.”

Hassan Bility, a long-time campaigner for the establishment of war crimes court and Executive Director for Global Justice and Research Project, supports Dempster’s assertion.

In an interview with Power FM/TV Bility highlighted the call by members of the US Congress in 2018 for Liberia to establish a war crimes court. He believes that is a sign the US government would help fund a court. 

“The Liberian government does not necessarily have to provide any money,” he said, detailing other war crimes tribunals that were funded and supported by the international community. He called on Liberians directly to push their legislators to pass a bill that would establish the court.

“So, we do not necessarily have to spend. You [Liberia] have to express the willingness and then you ask. Sierra Leone asked [for support] and it was given.”

For emerging economist and youth activist Martin K.N. Kollie, the cost to establish the court does not matter. It is the accountability by a War and Economic Crimes Court that will deliver the most important economic benefits which will set “Liberia on a new path towards genuine economic recovery, stability, and prosperity,” he said.

“After this Court does it work, would be culprits of economic crimes will be frightened to siphon public resources and abuse public assets which are intended to provide equal opportunities for all Liberians,” he says, encouraging more investments by donors and businesses.

Kollie was also hopeful that a court process would also include reparations – compensation payments – for victims. Reparations were among the 47 recommendations in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in Sierra Leone, the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund provided funding for a program in 2008. The program received $US8.5m in funds that were invested in one-time interim relief payments, medical operations for serious injuries, vocational training and micro-grants. However because there were so many victims, and so specific target groups, such as amputees and sexually abused women, the bulk of victims received just a one-time payment of roughly $US100.

For these reasons, a reparations fund does not seem likely at this point. The House of Representatives bill to establish the court does not include a reparations scheme for victims.

Knock-on Effects of a Court

Mr. Patrick Fatorma says the Special Court for Sierra Leone “greatly impacted” the country’s economy and help spurred the career development of many Sierra Leoneans who worked there  | Photo By: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni

In Sierra Leone, the benefits of the court played out in many ways that may not be immediately obvious. The Special Court gave hundreds of Sierra Leoneans opportunities for career advancement that they would not otherwise have had according to guide Patrick Fatoma.

“Many of our friends are now working for the ICC [International Criminal Court in the Netherlands],” Fatoma says. “Some are working across the world in various internationally acclaimed positions including in international tribunals. Security guards have obtained jobs across the world and some are here excelling within various sectors of our country.”

Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara, who was the deputy prosecutor of the Court, would later become attorney general of Sierra Leone from 2016 -2018, while other judges who worked for the court have ascended to high-level roles within the country’s judicial system.

Mr. Abdul Nyande, 65, also sees himself as a “legacy of the Court’s economic impact”. Hired to work at the court’s cafeteria from 2004 to 2012, the father of four children would later become his own employer. He now manages the very same cafeteria as a private business that employs 10 staff.

“I was able to pay for school fees, college fees, and up to now I realized that it was not a bad decision to stay here,” Nyande laughs. “The Court also gave me a business of my own and still I’m running it.”

He said the war crimes court created two benefits for his country: “to ensure justice for war victims and providing jobs for locals,” and he’s optimistic Liberia can have its fair share.   

“When it comes to Liberia, it will bring more employment for the local people and will bring in foreign exchange like how it did in Sierra Leone,” he says. “Ordinary people will get benefits.”

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.