The Little Engine That Could: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Creation of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone Commentary
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The Little Engine That Could: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Creation of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone

Twenty years ago this week, pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution, the United Nations (UN) entered into a bi-lateral treaty with the Republic of Sierra Leone, to create the world’s first hybrid international war crimes tribunal, the Special Court for Sierra Leone. A delegation travelled to the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, to hold a signing ceremony. It would end ten years of civil war. The rebels who held that West African country in a death grip would be coming in from the bush to turn in their weapons, disarming, with a pledge from the government to work together to restore peace and security to the region. The Special Court for Sierra Leone would be the world’s third major tribunal. The other two were accounting for atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Shortly after this important and historic event in January 2002, I was privileged to be asked by the United Nations to help create this new tribunal as its founding Chief Prosecutor. I stepped away from my career as a member of the Senior Executive Service of the United States, to travel to West Africa and seek justice for the murder, rape, maiming, and mutilation of 1.2 million human beings. It was a daunting task.

My mandate was to prosecute those who bore the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990’s. I quickly got to work setting up a ten-phase strategic management plan that would guide the new Office of the Prosecutor through the entire life of the tribunal, from its initial set-up, its operational phases, and then closing the court and establishing a residual court for future action. When I arrived in the first week of August 2002, I was already into phase three of my plan. I also had my prosecutorial strategy laid out.

We reached full operational capacity in November of that year and in March 2003, just six months after our arrival, entered into phase five of my strategic plan by executing Operation Justice, arresting 90% of those who bore the greatest responsibility for the atrocity crimes committed in Sierra Leone. It was meant to be a surprise lightning strike, arresting all those who bore the greatest responsibility for this tragedy all at once. Assisted by the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and Sierra Leone, the operation was a complete success without a shot being fired. The indictments were signed, the arrest warrants executed, and each indictee arraigned. We were in business. As an aside, I sealed the indictment of President Charles Taylor in neighboring Liberia, waiting for an appropriate time to take him down. That happened in June 2003, a few months after Operation Justice.

The remainder of my time in West Africa was spent executing my management and prosecutorial plans, backed by an amazing team from twenty-three different countries. These professionals made the international legal profession proud as they came to work every day, initially seven days a week, while under a serious security threat to their very lives, as well as threatened by getting every disease known to man. It was not unusual to have various members of this great legal team sick with malaria, typhoid, parasites, yellow fever, or a combination of them. They never gave up and tackled these daily challenges with what I call a “righteous fury.” The motto of my office was “put bad guys in jail” and that is exactly what we did. All of the indictees received an open and fair trial and were found guilty as I had originally charged them in the indictments, to include now former President Charles Taylor of Liberia, who is spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison in the United Kingdom.

During this time, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, came to be known as “the little engine that could” for its dogged efforts against incredible odds, bringing justice for the people of Sierra Leone and West Africa. We were all proud of that designation. The Special Court for Sierra Leone was arguably the most successful of the justice mechanisms during the modern era. How so?

It was efficient and effective, operating on a budget that was a quarter of the cost of the other two tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The strategic management plan kept our costs low with a planned for and objective budget. We knew where we were going, why we were doing it, and when we would meet our mandate of prosecuting those who bore the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. I could brief our management committee at any given time on how we were doing and how our donative funds were being spent. Using my ten-phase strategic management plan proved to be very effective and set a new standard for tribunal management.

My prosecutorial plan focused the tribunal and eliminated any wasted effort. We knew who we were going to indict, when, why, and with what charges. This included trying the perpetrators jointly in three criminal trials before two trial chambers. (President Charles Taylor was to be tried separately in The Hague for security reasons. The rest of the indictees were prosecuted before the citizens of Sierra Leone in Freetown). This had also kept our logistical costs down significantly.

As part of my strategic plan, we created a “town-hall program” where I would, by the end of 2002, travel to every major province and city/town, standing in front of the people of Sierra Leone asking them about what happened, getting their perspectives on the conflict, and who to include in the indictments. The key to this innovative program was that I listened to them as they told me incredible stories. During these formative months, I was humbled by these people who suffered through the ten-year horror of the civil war and by their intelligent perspectives regarding my mandate. Over time, I handed over this town hall program to the Registrar and it became the first ever Outreach Program of an international tribunal.

Because of the tight focus of the prosecutorial plan, particularly focused on crimes against women and children, the jurisprudence established during the life of the Special Court for Sierra Leone was groundbreaking and far reaching. This tribunal established for the first time, and forever, that a head of state is not immune for his actions that amount to international crimes. Additionally, further jurisprudence that was established by our Appellate Chamber, declared that the United Nations and a member state can enter into a treaty to establish a court; also setting a standard that those who recruit children under the age of 15 are committing an international crime, as well those who attack United National Peacekeepers. The Special Court also laid the cornerstone for making gender crimes a priority in future efforts and creating a new crime against humanity—forced marriage in times of armed conflict (to capture the gravamen of the offenses surrounding the infamous “bush wives” phenomenon).

There were many “firsts” during the life of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Others included showing that the jurisdictional standard of “greatest responsibility” was the most effective way to prosecute international crimes in the future. Another important innovation was the establishment of the Office of the Principal Defender, a fourth organ of the court along with the Office of the Prosecutor, the Office of the Registrar, and the Judiciary. This ensured that the defense teams received the appropriate support in their important work. International tribunals and courts are not kangaroo courts, but courts of law established to ensure that all parties have a free and fair trial. For all this and more the Special Court for Sierra Leone will be looked at by historians as a shining example of good law being laid down under solid management principles.

Looking back at these past twenty-years, we have seen international justice and atrocity accountability wane under the pressures of the age of the strongmen, where international efforts to achieve justice for atrocities have taken a backseat to the rise in nationalism/populism. Regardless, the Special Court for Sierra Leone stands as an efficient and effective example of a model for future international justice mechanisms.

During my many town-hall meetings over my three years in West Africa, I told the people before me that the law was fair, the no one was above the law, and that the rule of law was more powerful than the rule of the gun. I told them, “Don’t believe what I say, believe what I do.” We restored the rule of law to Sierra Leone, and it has been at peace for two decades. To all those who worked so hard to make this happen, the trial counsel, the paralegals, investigators, the wonderful folks in the Registry, the defense counsel, as well as the judges, you should be proud of what you did. Let’s quietly and humbly celebrate this week the fact that truly the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun and we showed exactly that in Sierra Leone.


Professor David M. Crane was the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2002-05. For further reading, see the author’s book – Every Living Thing: Facing Down Terrorists, Warlords, and Thugs in West Africa–A Story of Justice. 


Suggested citation: David M. Crane, The Little Engine That Could: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Creation of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, JURIST – Academic Commentary, January 18, 2022,

This article was prepared for publication by Sambhav Sharma, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at

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