Selected Recommended Reading

We gather here a selection of publications exploring in depth the transitional justice processes in Sierra Leone.  In addition, we include a sampling of books and articles we recommend on a variety of related topics, including: Sierra Leone and West Africa in general; peacebuilding and reconciliation; and forgiveness. These recommendations are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather suggestive. Click for selections from the following topics:

Transitional Justice in Sierra Leone

Website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The full report and other relevant documents are now available for download. This site was most recently updated in May 2012.

“Reconciliation and traditional justice: tradition-based practices of the Kpaa Mende in Sierra Leone,” by Joe A. D. Alie. An excellent overview of the war in Sierra Leone and the various formal justice mechanisms put in place by the international community afterward. The chapter introduces traditional justice mechanisms in Sierra Leone in general, examining the Kpaa Mende practices in a focused way. Extracted from Traditional Justice and Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: Learning from African Experiences, © International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2008.

“Searching for Truth and Justice in Sierra Leone: An Initial Study of the Performance and Impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” by the Sierra Leone Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation. This report was an initial study of the performance and impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in that country. The objective of the study was to open up debate that would lead to a fuller, independent evaluation of the performance and impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, no such evaluation was ever undertaken. Key issues that the report addresses include the role of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, the appointment and role of Commissioners, the issue of local ownership and participation and the role of International NGOs. Shortened version also available in Pambazuka News, Issue 243. February 2006.

“Moments of Truth in Sierra Leone: Contextualising the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” ARTICLE 19 and Forum of Conscience. This report sets out the views at that time of these two organizations, which were then working in partnership, about what the roles and functions of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be. Ten years after publication, it also offers an insight into the debates and events from which Fambul Tok eventually emerged. The Appendices referred to in the report are not included but are available in hard copy on request. August 2000.

“Truth and Justice in Sierra Leone: Coordination between Commission and the Court,” by Elizabeth Evenson, Columbia Law Review 104, no. 3 (2004): 730-767.

“Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” by Lansana Gberie, October 2004.

“Briefing: The Special Court of Sierra Leone,” by Lansana Gberie. African Affairs 102 (2003): pp. 737-648.

“The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Reviewing Its First Year,” by Priscilla Hayner. International Center for Transitional Justice, January 2004.
In October 2003, close to the end of the one-year mandate of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah granted the Commission a six-month extension, allowing it to continue work through the first few months of 2004. The Commission’s first year was challenging: it effectively lost its full preparatory period and the first two or three months of its mandate to administrative difficulties, and has been rushing to satisfy its broad mandate in the limited time that remained. Despite these difficulties, the TRC has undertaken remarkable work in some areas. This paper provides an initial summary of its work and points to some of the key difficulties it has encountered.

“Negotiating Peace in Sierra Leone: Confronting the Justice Challenge,” Priscilla Hayner, Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2007. The 1999 peace agreement between the armed opposition and the Government of Sierra Leone received considerable international attention. It ended a war renowned for its brutality, with a rebel force that seemed to lack any clear political ideology or aim. The peace accord is often remembered internationally for the blanket, unconditional amnesty granted to all warring parties, which met strong international condemnation. Despite the attention given to the accord, and the huge efforts of implementation by the United Nations and others, there has been no close study of the negotiating dynamics and influences over the three months of talks that led to the final accord. This article intends to fill this gap. Based on interviews with many of those directly involved in the talks, and focused especially on issues pertaining to justice and accountability, this account tracks the discussions and varying influences that finally resulted in the Lomé Accord of 1999. It also assesses the impact of this accord in the following years, from 1999 to mid-2007.

Truth, Lies, Ritual: Preliminary Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone, by Tim Kelsall. Human Rights Quarterly – Volume 27, Number 2, May 2005, pp. 361-391 This article uses an ethnographic description of a provincial public hearing in Sierra Leone to explore the paradoxical fact that in truth commissions, the truth is seldom told. It argues that the truth was not told for a variety of reasons, some of which are related to the special circumstances of the District, some to the problematic relationship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the Special Court, some to organizational infirmities of the TRC itself, and some to the fact that public truth-telling lacks deep roots in the local cultures of Sierra Leone. By contrast, a staged ceremony of repentance and forgiveness on the final day struck resonant chords with the participants and succeeded in forging a reconciliatory moment. The implication, argues the article, is that in certain circumstances ritual may be more important to reconciliation than truth.

Culture Under Cross-Examination: International justice and the Special Court for Sierra Leone by Tim Kelsall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. The international community created the Special Court for Sierra Leone to prosecute those who bore the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the country’s devastating civil war. Tim Kelsall examines some of the challenges posed by the fact that the Court operated in a largely unfamiliar culture, in which the way local people thought about rights, agency and truth-telling sometimes differed radically from the way international lawyers think about these things. By applying an anthro-political perspective to the trials, he unveils a variety of ethical, epistemological, jurisprudential and procedural problems, arguing that although touted as a promising hybrid, the Court failed in crucial ways to adapt to the local culture concerned. Culture matters, and international justice requires a more dialogical, multicultural approach.

“International Justice and Non-Western Cultures,” by Tim Kelsall. Paper to the Oxford Transitional Justice Research Working Paper, 2010. In this working paper, Tim Kelsall explores further some of the most important issues discussed in his 2009 book on the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

“The Relationship Between Truth Commissions and International Courts: The Case of Sierra Leone,” William Schabas. Human Rights Quarterly 25 (2003):1035-1066. The Lomé Peace Agreement of 7 July 1999 officially ended Sierra Leone’s eight-year civil war, granted amnesty to the combatants, and provided for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to facilitate the country’s healing process. Following renewed fighting, the government of Sierra Leone, with the assistance of the United Nations, established a special tribunal to try the most culpable violators of international humanitarian law and the laws of Sierra Leone. This paper considers the relationship between these two organizations and will compare their legal mandates and jurisdictional scopes. This paper will also examine the admissibility before the Special Court of testimony delivered in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing.

“Memory Frictions: Localizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone,” by Rosalind Shaw. International Journal of Transitional Justice, 1(2), 2007, pp. 183-207. This paper concerns the frictions of engagement when transitional justice mechanisms are implemented in local contexts. Her focus is the practice of truth-telling as part of a global paradigm of redemptive memory. She first traces the genealogy of this paradigm, examining how it came to appear ‘natural’ and ‘universal.’ Second, she explores struggles over memory that ensued when Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) assertively promoted this paradigm in a region in which alternative memory techniques reflected popular priorities in an unstable context of ‘no peace, no war.’ These struggles were rooted not only in the contested content of memories, but also in a perceived incommensurability between contrasting memory projects believed to have divergent implications for processes of reconstruction. Finally, she examines the significance of reparations both for local practices of post-war memory and for the local effectiveness of the TRC.

Rethinking Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Lessons from Sierra Leone,” by Rosalind Shaw. USIP Special Report, February 2005.  This report argues that, despite pressure from local NGOs and human rights activists for a TRC, there was little popular support for bringing such a commission to Sierra Leone, since most ordinary people preferred a “forgive and forget” approach. This response was partly attributable to issues that can arise whenever truth commissions are established or contemplated: fear of retaliation by perpetrators; fear of government reprisals; and concerns arising from the concurrent operation of different transitional justice mechanisms (in this case, the TRC and the Special Court for Sierra Leone). But in addition to these issues, the widespread appeal of a “forgive and forget” approach derived from local strategies of recovery and reintegration that were never seriously addressed in Sierra Leone’s TRC. Sierra Leone’s TRC, like South Africa’s, valorized a particular kind of memory practice: “truth telling,” the public recounting of memories of violence. This valorization, however, is based on problematic assumptions about the purportedly universal benefits of verbally remembering violence.

Final Narrative Report to the Ford Foundation, ARTICLE 19. Between 2000-02, ARTICLE 19 and the Working Group on the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as it was called at the time, used a Ford Foundation grant to cooperate on a range of activities, with the Working Group in the lead on the ground: the publication of monthly ‘Truth Bulletins’; regional consultations with Sierra Leonean NGOs and CBOs about truth and reconciliation issues; and visits by Sierra Leonean activists to Guatemala, Zimbabwe and South Africa to look at “unofficial” truth and reconciliation initiatives in those countries. This narrative report gives fuller information about those activities.

Evaluation report by an independent consultant on the Working Group on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, January 2001. At the request of the Working Group, Brandon Hamber, a South African human rights activist, formerly with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, conducted an evaluation of its performance and activities. Here is the full text of that report.

Sierra Leone and West Africa

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah

Running for My Life, by Victor F.M. Mosele

In Sierra Leone, by Michael Jackson

Salute to the Remains of a Peasant, by Oumar Farouk Sesay

The Devil That Danced on The Water: A Daughter’s Quest, by Aminatta Forna

Ancestor Stones: A Novel, by Aminatta Forna

West Africa:

Mississippi in Africa, by Alan Huffman (a book on Liberia)

The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War, by Stephen Ellis

The Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa, by Daniel Bergner

Journey Without Maps, by Graham Greene

Peacebuilding and Reconciliation

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Peacebuilding, by John Paul Lederach

Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace, by Sara Terry

The Aftermath: Women in Post-Conflict Transformation, edited by Sheila Meintjes, Anu Pillay, and Meredeth Turshen

“The Power of Justice, Justice as Power: Observations on the Trajectory of the International Human Rights Movement,” by Jon Lunn. This discussion paper by one of our board members explores, amongst other things, how powerful players within the international human rights movement came to privilege retributive justice over other, non-judicial forms of accountability and restitution such as truth and reconciliation processes, taking Sierra Leone as a case study. In doing so, it describes the co-operation that took place between ARTICLE 19, an international freedom of expression NGO, and the Sierra Leone Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation, then led by Fambul Tok’s Executive Director John Caulker, during the early- to mid-2000s. September 2005.


No Future Without Forgiveness, by Desmond Tutu

A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, by Puma Gobodo-Madikizela