Between 1991 and 2000, the West African nation of Sierra Leone suffered a bloody and destructive civil war. Horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity were inflicted upon children, women and men. Buildings in urban areas, including the capital, Freetown, suffered serious damage, undermining the country’s infrastructure.
One victim of the civil war was the High Court Library in Freetown. Before the war, the Library had been the country’s major repository of law books. With the sacking and burning of the High Court in the mid 1990’s, the Library’s entire collection was destroyed. This left only a small collection of dated books at the law school library. These remaining resources were inadequate for Sierra Leonean lawyers to carry on practice.
The civil war ended in 2000. At that time, the Sierra Leonean government requested the assistance of the United Nations to establish an international court to prosecute those responsible for atrocities committed during the war. In October 2000, the Special Court for Sierra Leone was established under Security Council mandate. The Special Court is a hybrid war crimes tribunal that is hearing cases involving crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Charges before the Special Court address acts of murder, rape, extermination, terror, enslavement, looting and burning, sexual slavery, conscription and attacks on United Nations peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, among others.
The Sierra Leone Law Libraries Project:
Following the establishment of the Special Court, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (“BHRC”) created a major project to support the rebuilding of Sierra Leone’s legal infrastructure. The BHRC identified two law libraries in need of resources: the old High Court Library and the new Special Court Library.
The High Court Library was unusable in its post-war state. The British Council is funding the reconstruction of the High Court Library; several donors, including the BHRC and LRWC are contributing books and other research resources.
The Special Court Library was create to assist the Special Court in carry out its mandate. The Library – like the Special Court’s buildings, registry, and other infrastructure – will devolve to Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Justice at the end of the Court’s mandate. Members of the legal profession and advocates/researchers from non-governmental organizations currently have, and will continue to have, access to the Special Court Library’s collections. One full time librarian, and an assistant librarian staff the Special Court Library.
In late 2003, LRWC joined with the BHRC to contribute to the Sierra Leone Law Libraries Project. Over the course of 2004, LRWC collected approximately 6000 lbs of new and used texts and reporters, which were shipped to Freetown in early 2005. On April 21, 2005, LRWC received confirmation that the books had been received at the Special Court. They are now being sorted to determine which books will remain at the Special Court Library and which will go directly to the High Court Library.
The Sierra Leone Law Libraries Project was an extremely successful endeavour for LRWC. Not only did LRWC collect a huge quantity of high quality donated texts and reporters, but LRWC was also able to raise sufficient donations to cover all shipping costs.
Moreover, due to publicity given to the LRWC initiative in its early stages, LRWC’s collection efforts sparked a “copy-cat” project in the Bahamas. The Bahamanian Bar collected and delivered an additional half tonne of books to Freetown.
It is recommended that LRWC continue to monitor opportunities to participate in law library-building projects. For the most part, Canadian publishers and donors were very generous in offering books, and the utility of such research materials in under-resourced areas is beyond dispute.
LRWC will continue to communicate with staff at the Special Court in Sierra Leone to determine whether there are further steps that LRWC can take to support the rebuilding of the justice system in the country.
Monique Pongracic-Speier is the LRWC manager of the Sierra Leone Law Libraries Project and the author of this report.