(New York) - The U.N.-backed court for war crimes in Sierra Leone needs funding to ensure justice for victims of atrocities committed during the country's 11-year civil war, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today. The Special Court for Sierra Leone today resumes the trial of leaders of the government-backed Civil Defense Forces.  
 
The United Nations and its member states - particularly the United States and Britain - should fund the Special Court's budget so that it can complete its operations. They should also increase funding to several key areas of the court to ensure that it can deliver justice fairly and effectively.  
 
"Justice is crucial for victims of atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's civil war and for building respect for the rule of law across West Africa," said Elise Keppler, counsel with Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "The Special Court has already made significant strides, but lack of funds could undermine its ability to carry out justice."  
 
The Special Court is charged with bringing to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, other serious violations of international humanitarian law, and certain violations of Sierra Leonean law committed since November 1996. Created through an agreement between the United Nations and the Sierra Leonean government, the Special Court represents a significant new international justice model, often referred to as a "mixed" or "hybrid" tribunal.  
 
The 56-page report,“Bringing Justice: The Special Court for Sierra Leone,”evaluates developments at the court, identifying achievements and making recommendations where operations should be improved. The report also urges the international community to provide more financial and political support for the court so it can complete its work effectively.  
 
Since the Special Court began functioning in 2002, the court's staff has made a tremendous effort to ensure accountability despite scarce resources and lack of adequate facilities. The court has investigated and indicted 13 individuals from three warring factions - the government-backed Civil Defense Forces, as well as the two rebel groups, the Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.  
 
The court has also issued a number of precedent-setting decisions on international law. For example, the court ruled in May that heads of state are not immune from prosecution before an international court. This ruling removed any legal basis for Nigeria to continue to harbor former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is indicted by the court on war crimes and crimes against humanity.  
 
However, Human Rights Watch has concerns about several aspects of the court's operations, many of which relate to insufficient funding by donors. The operations of the Defense Office, the Witness and Victim Support Unit, the Chambers, and the Outreach section have been constrained by inadequate resources. The court established a Defense Office to help ensure protection of the rights of the accused, but lack of resources for defense teams has hampered case preparation.  
 
The Office of the Prosecutor also has too narrowly interpreted the court's mandate to exclude prosecution of regional or mid-level commanders who were notorious for their extreme brutality against civilians, Human Rights Watch said. Insufficient witness protection and delay in establishing the second Trial Chamber raise additional concerns.  
 
Furthermore, the absence from the court of former Liberian President Charles Taylor - who is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in contributing to the death, rape, abduction, and mutilation of thousands of civilians during Sierra Leone's civil war - threatens to undermine the court's accomplishments.  
 
"By continuing to harbor Charles Taylor, Nigeria is sending the message that some individuals should be above the law when it comes to the most serious crimes," said Keppler. "Nigeria should hand Taylor over to the Special Court immediately. It's time for the United Nations and member states to call on Nigeria to do the right thing."  
 
Background  
 
The Special Court began trials on June 3, with the trial of three Civil Defense Forces leaders: Sam Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofana, and Allieu Kondewa. On July 5, the Special Court began the trial of three Revolutionary United Front leaders: Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon, and Augustine Gbao. The trial of three Armed Forces Revolutionary Council leaders - Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara, and Santigie Borbor Kanu - has not yet begun.  
 
The establishment of the second Trial Chamber, which has been delayed, would allow for the trial of Armed Forces Revolutionary Council leaders to be conducted simultaneously with trials of leaders of the Revolutionary United Front and Civil Defense Forces.