U.N.’s Annan approves war crimes court for Sierra Leone

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday authorized a war crimes tribunal to be set up in Sierra Leone despite a big shortfall in funding pledges from the world body’s member-nations.

Annan said a U.N. planning mission would head to the Sierra Leone capital Freetown on Monday to launch the process of arranging premises for the special court, hiring local staff and beginning investigations, Reuters reported.

The tribunal’s task would be to prosecute about 20 alleged ringleaders of the West African nation’s decade-long civil war, which currently appears to be winding down, Reuters reported. The U.N. Security Council voted to set it up in 2000 to try people charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international law.

Sierra Leone’s U.N. envoy Allieu Ibrahim Kanu, welcoming Annan’s move, said the court could be ready to begin trying cases in about a year, Reuters reported.

The war in the former British colony pitted government forces and militias against Revolutionary United Front rebels who seized control of the country’s diamond-mining areas and became notorious for hacking off the limbs of women and children and enlisting thousands of child soldiers in their cause. The rebels fueled the fighting by selling diamonds they mined for arms.

But after a disarmament agreement was reached in May, the United Nations has deployed its biggest peacekeeping operation across the country and collected the weapons of more than 40,000 fighters.

The U.N. planning mission would remain in Freetown through Jan. 18 and culminate in the signing of an agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone establishing a legal framework for the tribunal’s operations, Annan said in a letter to the Security Council.

While U.N. members have donated nearly enough money to finance the first year of the tribunal’s operations, pledges for its second and third years have fallen well short of the amounts required, Annan reported. So the United Nations may later have to mandate extra member payments to make up any shortfalls, he said.

The world body has already slashed the court’s budget from an original estimate of $114 million to $57 million for three years because of problems raising the funds.

The problems arose because the United Nations insisted the court be financed through voluntary contributions rather than an assessment to all U.N. members, as was done for special tribunals hearing cases on the Balkan wars and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Donors have so far contributed $14.8 million toward the estimated $16.2 million needed for the court’s first year. But just $20.4 million has been pledged of the $40 million needed for its second and third years.