November 20, 2019
By Elaine McArdle
As a young person in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, Alpha Sesay knew little but war. He lost close family to the conflict, witnessed atrocities, and was internally displaced before obtaining refugee status in Guinea. As a university student in Sierra Leone, he was arrested and beaten in prison after challenging a police practice as not grounded in law.
“Those experiences really influenced me a great deal in terms of what I wanted to do with my life,” said Sesay, who as a human rights lawyer has held various positions in the human rights and international justice sectors. He is currently an Advocacy Officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) in Washington, D.C. Sesay has dedicated his career to human rights, moved to make sure that his experiences of war are not replicated elsewhere. “What shall I do as an individual so that this doesn’t happen again and that others don’t experience what we did as a country?” he said.
As a law student, Sesay mobilized friends to launch the first student human rights group in Sierra Leone—and the first human rights clinic in Western Africa—which led to the creation of a human rights module at the University of Sierra Leone. After getting his law degree in Sierra Leone and an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Notre Dame Law School, he returned to his home country to establish and teach international human rights at the university.
When the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor before the Special Court for Sierra Leone was moved to The Hague, Sesay created and managed a trial-monitoring project for OSJI that provided daily information to Sierra Leonean and Liberian audiences. A few years earlier, he had created a similar trial-monitoring and accountability program for proceedings before the Special Court for Sierra Leone and criminal cases within Sierra Leone’s domestic justice system. In that program, he focused on promoting judicial accountability and providing information to and soliciting feedback from the public, especially victims in Sierra Leone. Today, it has become one of the country’s leading NGOs, he said.
Sesay spoke at a conference at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government in October 2018 on “The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court at 20” with Luis Moreno Ocampo (left), Founding Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and Senior Fellow at the Carr Center.
Sesay took a sabbatical from OSJI in 2018-2019, joining HRP as a Visiting Fellow. At HLS, he researched how the state fails to comply with decisions of human rights bodies. His aim was to devise recommendations for how to better ensure state compliance with human rights standards. As a fellow, Sesay also mentored HLS students interested in human rights work and offered his expertise to Harvard faculty working on various human rights issues.
He described interacting with students and sharing his knowledge of the African human rights system as one of the highlights of his time at the Law School. “To find myself at Harvard doing research and contributing to the university’s academic life was immensely fulfilling,” and the human rights community “is a really welcoming academic environment.”
“Having been an intimate witness to human rights violations myself, I strive to give those a platform who would not otherwise have a voice,” he said. “A lot of people, many of them victims [of human rights violations] themselves, work every day to make life better for vulnerable communities. Those people inspire me every day in the work we do.”
This profile is an excerpt from the 2018-2019 Human Rights Program Annual Report.