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Journalist Thierry Cruvellier Reflects on the Causes and Consequences of Sierra Leone's Civil War

Thierry Cruvellier sitting at table gesticulating
Apr 21 2015

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Events, Rule of Law and Accountability, Teaching & Students

Investigative journalist Thierry Cruvellier engaged more than 30 Stanford students and community members April 21 for a seminar on Sierra Leone’s trajectory before, during, and following the civil war of 1991 – 2002.

The event was co-sponsored by the Handa Center, the Center for African Studies, and Stanford Global Studies, as well as several student groups as part of the Spring Series on Civil Liberties and Human Rights Protection in Africa.

Cruvellier has been covering the West African nation for 25 years, including as a reporter at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). He first visited Sierra Leone in 1990 to head a local magazine, a time when the United Nations ranked the nation last on its Human Development Index.

“The UN was basically saying this is the worst place in the world to be, but we didn’t feel that way,” said Cruvellier. “Sierra Leone is a great society with very little antagonism between people.”

In his seminar, Sierra Leone: From War to Recovery, Cruvellier endeavored to explain the causes of the war and how justice efforts following its conclusion have changed the political and social landscape. The talk also served as an opportunity for Cruvellier to share early findings from his forthcoming book on a generation of Sierra Leonean intellectuals who went through three decades of hardship, brutal violence, and economic struggle since they demonstrated as students in the 1970s.

Cruvellier refuted the popular narrative that the civil war was simply about diamonds; instead, he views diamonds as the fuel that financed a conflict based on decades of widespread corruption, bad governance, and a complete dearth of social services. He noted the war’s many similarities with modern African conflicts, notably the multiplicity of armed factions, the prevalence of mass atrocities, and overwhelming number of civilian causalities. 

However, Cruvellier believes Sierra Leone’s is the only civil war in contemporary Africa that never turned ethnic or religious – a reflection of their tolerant society, he says.

As the only journalist to have reported on nearly all modern international criminal tribunals, Cruvellier discussed the legacy of the SCSL, a Freetown-based hybrid tribunal mandated to prosecute the most responsible violators of international humanitarian law during the civil war period. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor became the first African head of state to be convicted for his part in war crimes there.

“With the Special Court, they were trying not to do what the tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia did wrong,” said Cruvellier. “They wanted to be closer to the population, more efficient, and have more of an impact on national institutions – and though it took longer than expected, it is the only modern tribunal that has finished its work.”

Cruvellier encouraged audience members to consult the complementary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he described as remarkably comprehensive.

Concluding by noting what has changed in the decade since the war’s conclusion, Cruvellier quoted a chieftain describing how people at the local level have begun demanding their inherent human rights.

“‘Before the war, people didn't have the audacity or courage to say this,’” he said.