Outreach and Public Affairs was formed by the merger in 2007 of the Public Affairs Office (PAO), or “Press and Public Affairs,” and the Outreach Section. The two sections had long cooperated, and their formal merger brought together two sections with a strong tradition of innovation and a commitment to accessibility.
Situated, as the Court was, in the country where the crimes took place, a decade of war had taken its toll on the communications network and the road infrastructure. Telephone coverage was limited to Freetown and a couple of provincial cities; few media houses had access to email, low-power community radio stations were not networked, roads were rough and, in the rains, often dangerous. Rumours and misinformation spread frequently, and were sometimes spread deliberately, and resulted initially in suspicions about the Court’s mandate and its motives.
Against this background, Public Affairs pioneered the use of SMS text messaging to support press release drop-offs in the city centre, press releases (in English and Krio) were recorded on CD for the use of radio stations, and, later, set up a call-in line, supported by text-messaging, for electronic media to access recorded statements. The Public Affairs Office was also responsible for working with the local and international press, writing the press releases, and operating the Court’s website and later the Court’s use of social media.
Meanwhile Outreach took the Court’s message directly to the people of Sierra Leone and, when the Taylor trial began, to Liberia. With minimal funding from the Court’s core budget, the Special Court became the first international court to conduct community-based outreach with staff stationed throughout the country, using a variety of traditional and modern methods to answer questions from the public and to communicate the Court’s message and to listen to and respond to concerns raised by the public. So successful was it, that in December 2006 the former ICTY President Antonio Cassese called Outreach “the crown jewel of the Special Court”.
The Outreach Section needed to invent the concept of outreach from the ground up, since there was no precedent in any other tribunal. Starting first with Freetown-based staff, the Section soon had as many as 18 District Outreach Officers throughout the country. While relatively few in number, the Court’s reach was extended by partnerships with civil society groups whose members, trained by the Outreach Section, spoke about the Special Court, the rule of law, human rights and impunity around the country and later, with the formation of the Outreach Secretariat for Liberia, in that country as well.
Outreach used a mixture of traditional and modern formats to reach audiences, including community town hall meetings – often with Special Court principals; video screenings of trial summaries produced in-house and screened in villages with portable equipment; radio call-in shows, school visits, trainings, and targeted outreaches. Special Court officials reached out to the military and police, parliamentarians, traditional leaders and district counselors, market women, handicapped and disabled citizens, “youths” – which included ex-combatants – and many others. Under the guidance of Outreach, students at tertiary institutions in Sierra Leone and Liberia established Accountability Now Clubs to involve university students in justice and accountability issues and to carry on the principles of the Special Court. The section wrote and distributed, in two editions, some 30,000 copies each of pamphlets on the Special Court and on international humanitarian law.
In 2006 and 2007, Outreach engaged Sierra Leone’s Civil Society Movement (CSM) which did Outreach in all of the country’s 149 chiefdoms. As with the SCWG, Outreach provided training and micro-grants. The CSM was particularly valuable in telling people what the Court was here to do and – as important – what it was not here to do. Assistance took the form of distribution of materials, community town hall meetings, and radio discussions.
When the Taylor trial was moved to The Hague due to regional security concerns, opinion leaders were sent to observe the trial and to then report to their constituencies on what they saw.
Initially, the work was not easy. Court staff explained the workings of the Court, the principles of law and human rights, the respect for the rights of the accused, and the protection of witnesses. People asked why some people were tried and not others, or whether holding those who committed crimes accountable might not reignite the war, amongst many other questions.
Although there were setbacks, especially the anger in some parts of the country following the death of Hinga Norman, the Special Court gradually was accepted as an important, even an indispensable, institution. Those who showed up at community meetings asked why more people weren’t tried, or whether the Court could broaden its mandate to cover political violence.
In 2009 and 2010 two memorable events symbolic of growing respect for the Court took place. The first was an event in Fakunya Chiefdom, Moyamba District, formerly a CDF stronghold which strongly opposed the trial of former CDF leaders during which the paramount chief held a huge community meeting to honour the Special Court Registrar. Then in 2010 the youths of Talia Yawbeko in Bonthe District, the site of the CDF training base called “Base Zero,” asked that the Special Court send a high-level outreach to their town, and requested that a monument to the Court be erected there. The meeting took place in March, and the marble monument, near the town’s court barrie, was dedicated by the Registrar.
On 26 April 2012 the Taylor Judgement was delivered in The Hague. More than 1,200 people gathered at the Special Court complex in Freetown to watch the Judgement streamed live. Nearly all the country’s 149 paramount chiefs, civil society members, victims, and many others attended while, in the provinces District Outreach Officers held community meetings at crime scenes and the community listened to the proceedings on radio. For the first time, a nationwide hookup and Krio translation from the Court allowed people throughout the country to follow the events live.
On 26 September 2013 the Appeals Chamber unanimously upheld the conviction of Mr. Charles Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and affirmed the 50-year sentence imposed by the Trial Chamber. The attendees at the Courthouse for this historical day included Government Ministers and Officials, Paramount Chiefs representing all regions, Headmen of Freetown, witnesses and victims, key members of diplomatic corps and civil society.