WARREN, Pa. - This past Wednesday would have been former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Warren County native Robert H. Jackson's 121st birthday.
The only man to serve as U.S. Solicitor General, Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice, Jackson laid the foundation for the prosecution of international criminal law, establishing and prosecuting Nazi war criminals after World War II at Nuremberg.
To celebrate that legacy, current Jackson Center CEO James Johnson, who spent nine-and-a-half years prosecuting war criminals as the Chief of Prosecutions for the Special Court of Sierra Leone, spoke at the Warren County Courthouse about his experiences as a prosecutor of international criminal law.
James Johnson, former chief of prosecutions of the Special Court of Sierra Leone, and current Robert H. Jackson CEO, spoke on his experiences prosecuting international criminal law in Sierra Leone at the Warren County Courthouse on Wednesday evening. The lecture was in honor of the 121st birthday of Jackson, a Warren County native who served on the U.S. Supreme Court and tried Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.
Photo by Josh Cotton
While the concept of the international tribunal originally designed by Jackson remains largely unchanged, several circumstances made prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone particularly unique.
The court, which was the first international tribunal to convict and sentence a head of state, grew out of a conflict that was "particularly brutal," Johnson said. "In some ways, we saw some things coming out of Sierra Leone that you really hadn't seen before." Over 50,000 people were killed, child soldiers were utilized and many were victims of "systematic amputations" that would hinder quality of life permanently.
The mandate of the court, Johnson explained, was to "prosecute those who bore the greatest responsibility."
The focus was not on prosecuting all of those involved. Instead, he said, "We were set up to try the leaders." They could prosecute on four separate charges: crimes against humanity, war crimes, attacks on peacekeepers as well as the use of child soldiers.
Where Nuremberg sought to assign responsibility to who started what would ultimately become World War II, Johnson said that the Special Court was "now interested in how you fight the war. It doesn't matter if you were on the side of right or the aggressor. We cared about how you fought it and that is the way modern international tribunals are set up."
"I was responsible for those years for overseeing all of the trials," he said, explaining that the prosecutor's office brought indictments against 13 individuals, three of whom died before they could be tried. The other 10 were tried in three separate trials with a fourth trial specifically arranged for the prosecution of Charles Taylor, the Liberian head of state who allegedly guided the rebels in Sierra Leone.
The headline trial was that of Taylor, who was the sitting president when he was indicated and who was ultimately the first head of state convicted of crimes against humanity since Nuremburg. The first immediate problem for the prosecutor, Johnson explained, was arresting Taylor. When his indictment was unsealed, Taylor went into exile in Nigeria for three years before he was ultimately handed over to the Special Court.
One hundred witnesses 94 of whom were brought to the court testified against Taylor at his trial at The Hague, which started in 2007. He was convicted on all counts with which he had been charged and sentenced to a 50-year prison term which will likely be served in the United Kingdom once the appeal process, which is currently ongoing, concludes.
Contrasted with Jackson's work at Nuremburg, Johnson said, "Many of the cases at Nuremburg were paper cases. We didn't have a paper trail that we could establish," in Sierra Leone. "We would only prove our case through witness testimony."
Reflecting on his experiences, he said, "A lot of terrible things happened in Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leones are a wonderful people. There's a lot of life in the people of Sierra Leone. They are trying very hard to move forward."
On a more personal level, Johnson said, "It was an honor for me to do what I did The work was rewarding. You felt like you were making a difference."
He acknowledged, "You do feel contempt for (the defendants). You feel hatred for them, but you are there to do a job. That's why we were there to do a job the rule of law rules."