Fleeing the Jurisdiction

Where the sun rises
August 6, 2007, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Development, Government, Timor-Leste

Banking around over the palm-fringed coastline in the small prop plane, Dili seemed like some forgotten seaside resort. A millionaire’s folly, a lavish plaything tossed unwanted into the undergrowth. Though at a distance, its grand colonial buildings, statues and plazas appeared wracked only by time and nature, the violent truth became obvious once my feet touched ground. Continue reading


When I grow up…
February 1, 2007, 3:54 am
Filed under: Development, Sierra Leone

I saw him the night before, grizzled and dusty as he stepped out of the wreck of a car. When I speak of the vehicle in those terms, I don’t disparage its make or upkeep, but rather suggest that its owner had miraculously survived a brush with death. Its chassis now resembled more a failed origami experiment in four-wheel drive manufacture than a serious mode of transport. He seemed nonchalant, all the same, smoothing the broken glass from his clothes and tossing the keys through the busted door onto the seat. He ran a hand through greying hair and laughed as he walked off.

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Fire, fire
January 31, 2007, 1:53 am
Filed under: Development, Law, Sierra Leone

Packed into the NGO standard-issue white four-wheel drive along with the full complement of interpreters and investigators, we made a late exit from Freetown, speeding along roads fit to make a civil engineer weep. At regular intervals, we would pass the sagging shapes of other vehicles mournfully stopped kerbside like defeated triathletes. Palms punctuated the landscape. The RUF’s symbolic use of these ubiquitous but top-heavy, shallow-rooted trees, easily toppled by strong winds, now seems absurdly prophetic. I was to find, though, in the following days spent upcountry with ex-combatants, that some still see – or wish to see – life in the fallen movement.

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Making a killing
January 11, 2007, 3:27 am
Filed under: Development, Law, Sierra Leone

Most Sierra Leoneans seem to support the general thrust of the Special Court’s work, recognising the need to provide a deterrent to despotism and root out impunity. The need for this to occur in an environment that upholds human rights – even the rights of the accused – largely receives grudging acceptance. What rankles, however, is the the expense. There’s no denying that the trials, both in terms of duration and associated infrastructure, are a massively costly exercise. Donor countries, including Australia, justify this, reasonably enough, as an investment in the future stability of the country. The enduring benefits are, however, often confined to this abstract and unquantifiable category. The practical, tangible dividends are few. The Court building itself, for example, is fitted with full-length bullet-proof glass partitions that make natural ventilation impossible. In order to make it habitable, enormous generators are required. It is widely hypothesised that when the Court is handed over to the Sierra Leonean government in a flag-waving ceremony of partnership and magnanimity, it will immediately become a white elephant utterly unused by a community that, without the UN to ship in tankers of fuel, simply does not have the electricity to run such a facility.

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Meeting the devil in Monrovia
January 3, 2007, 9:30 pm
Filed under: Development, Government

A housemate here in Freetown had worked with the UN in Liberia, and travelled regularly back to visit her partner there. She seemed pretty well connected and had passed along some details, promising to make arrangements on my behalf when she visited for Christmas. Unfortunately, it appears illness intervened – she never made it. So it was with some trepidation, but nevertheless more determination, that I set off – to a country rarely described without the prefix ‘war-torn’ thanks to the ravages of Charles Taylor’s regime – and with no more than a phone number by way of planning. Having endured the short flight run by Slok Air, whose cabin crew helpfully suggested using the seat cushions as flotation devices in lieu of lifejackets, I managed to bluff and smile my way past the customs officials wanting their holiday season ‘dash’, or graft. I sat myself down next to the dried cow hoof vendors, hoping that my hasty and half-heard calls, trading on faint associations, had turned up a contact to meet me at the airport. I needn’t have worried.  I was greeted with broad smiles and was swiftly adopted by a circle of new Liberian, Nigerian and Guinean friends who quizzed me on Australia – how far was it? how easy to get a job? – on the long ride through blue-helmet checkpoints into Monrovia. A local convent offered cheap, clean rooms and simple food, so I dumped my bag and joined the gang at a roadside cafe for a political discussion, fueled by strong ‘atayeh’ tea, that ran late into the night and spanned English, French and (testing my ear) various creoles.

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Young people today
December 8, 2006, 5:52 am
Filed under: Development, Law, Sierra Leone

54% of Sierra Leone’s population at the outset of the civil war was under the age of eighteen. This conflict is notorious for the use of child soldiers, many abducted and given ideological training before being sent for frontline duty in so-called Small Boy and Small Girl Units. Charles Taylor is known to have proselytised on the loyalty of soldiers raised to such service. By way of caveat, I should note that the extent to which such units operated, and in what capacity,  remains under question. Certainly the prospect of an eight year old effectively using an AK-47 merits skepticism. The effect of such combatants, however, some reputedly as young as eight, cannot be underestimated. Though far from an expert on the psychosocial ramifications of wartime trauma, I can hazard some hypothesis that an immature and perhaps easily manipulated view of events might breed a collective disjuncture, a sense of unreality. Reading the grotesque deeds of rebels who have dubbed themselves, inter alia, Superman and Rambo, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the conflict, for all its palpable and horrifying consequences, for many took place in some fantastic, otherworldly landscape constructed to avoid the alternative shroud of greed and cruelty. Though I would never suggest that institutionalised Peter-Panery excuses the truly nightmarish misdeeds that have become the international face of this shattered country, it does go some way to explaining the shameful bewilderment and disbelief with which many ex-combatants, now grown men,  confront their participation. It is like they have woken up from a dream of killing to find blood on their hands. Ironically, due to the war, the proportion of Sierra Leoneans under the age of eighteen is now higher than ever before.

Casting off the cardigan
November 23, 2006, 11:04 am
Filed under: Development, Government, Law, Sierra Leone

I’m writing this first entry as my last act in the employ of government. Appalling waste of public resources. As a taxpayer, I too am outraged. Nonetheless, this is necessary catharsis. Tomorrow I leave for Sierra Leone, to take up a legal role with a local human rights NGO. In part, I’ll be working on a war crimes case being heard in the United Nations-sponsored Special Court.

It’s a long way from the suit-and-tie, ivory tower law I’ve lately been practicing. Whilst the legislative reform for which I’ve had responsibility goes undoubtedly to the social good, the abstract and often detached nature of the process has increasingly chafed. Work in Cambodia, on a community justice project completed earlier this year, confirmed for me the appeal of a more engaged, albeit less assured, path.

For all its risk-averse, reactionary, rule-bound and rationalising ways, government has been an intellectually satisfying context in which to apply my skills to an end not driven by profit. I know I leave behind many colleagues whose integrity and commitment to principle helps maintain the creaky machinery of democracy. Time, though, for me to back myself in pursuing a different mode of service.

For all those to whom it all sounds ludicrously idealistic and naive, please feel free to assume this simply veils a desperate and quixotic attempt to garner female attention. Regardless of this transparent duplicity, I’ll do my best when commenting in this forum to project the image of a conscientious observer of and sometime contributor to the thorny and problematic process of development.