As reported in a prior post, on April 26th the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Charles Taylor, the former President of neighboring Liberia of 11 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The hearing on his sentencing has been scheduled for May 16th with the sentence to be pronounced on May 30th. The deadline for any appeal is 14 days after the sentencing judgment.
Before we look at the reactions to that conviction, we should be aware of the gruesome details of what happened in Sierra Leone according to witnesses at Taylor’s trial. Here are only two examples. One male witness, “Then I put this other hand. Then he [a Sierra Leone rebel] chopped it, but when he chopped it it was not severed initially. He chopped it twice, and it hit here and some bones were broken in it. Then the third time it was severed.” Another male witness, “Well, they [the rebels] used to treat them [civilians] badly. They used to rape them. They used to kill them. Sometimes they even ate them.” A video with photos of some of the Sierra Leone victims should be watched as well as current photos from the country.
Another aspect of the trial needs highlighting. One of the challenges facing the prosecution was how to link Mr. Taylor in Liberia to the crimes committed in Sierra Leone. There was no paper trail showing orders from Taylor. Nor was there any evidence of his ever going to Sierra Leone. He was not at the scene of the crimes in that country, and the Liberian army was not involved. Instead the link was proven by radio and telephone communications from Taylor to the rebels in Sierra Leone, by shipments of arms and ammunition to the rebels from Taylor’s forces and by bank records showing transfers of funds to Taylor’s accounts from Sierra Leone.
The Special Court’s chief prosecutor, Brenda J. Hollis, who is a U.S. lawyer, said the conviction was a triumph for the idea that political leaders should be held accountable for their deeds in “the new reality of an international justice system.”
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the conviction “marked a major milestone in the development of international justice. . . . A former President, who once wielded immense influence in a neighbouring [sic] country where tens of thousands of people were killed, mutilated, raped, robbed and repeatedly displaced for years on end, has been arrested, tried in a fair and thorough international procedure, and has now been convicted of very serious crimes.” Such a result, she said, was “a stark warning to other Heads of State who are committing similar crimes, or contemplating doing so.”
The U.S. Department of State issued an official statement welcoming the conviction as “an important step toward delivering justice and accountability for victims, restoring peace and stability in the country and the region, and completing the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s mandate to prosecute those persons who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone. The Taylor prosecution at the Special Court delivers a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable.” The U.S. statement also noted that the U.S. “has been a strong supporter and the leading donor of the Special Court . . . since its inception. The successful completion of the Special Court’s work remains a top U.S. Government priority.”
Amnesty International (AI) asserted that the conviction sends “a clear message to leaders the world over that no-one is immune from justice.” However, AI lamented that because of the limited jurisdiction and funding of the Special Court, “Thousands of persons suspected of criminal responsibility for incidences of unlawful killings, rape and sexual violence, mutilations and the use of children in Sierra Leone’s armed conflict have never been investigated, much less prosecuted.” In addition, AI emphasized that “only a limited number of Sierra Leone’s thousands of victims who bear the terrible scars of the conflict have received reparations, despite the [provisions for reparations in the Sierra Leone] Peace Accord and the clear recommendations [for reparations] by [Sierra Leone’s] Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” AI also reiterated its call for the repeal of the amnesty provision in the Peace Accord and [for Sierra Leone’s] enactment of legislation defining crimes against humanity and war crimes as crimes under Sierra Leone law.”
Human Rights Watch had a similar reaction. It said the conviction “sends a message to those in power that they can be held to account for grave crimes.”
A New York Times editorial said the conviction “is a historic victory for justice and accountability: the first time a former head of state has been convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Mr. Taylor . . . richly deserves this distinction.” The editorial also reminded us that “other leaders . . . deserve the same fate” from the International Criminal Court in its prosecutions of the Ivory Coast’s brutal former president, Laurent Gbagbo, and Sudan’s current president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
The Guardian newspaper from London commented that the conviction was “an important step in what can only be described as the faltering path of international justice.” It noted that even though there were dysfunctional justice systems in Russia and China, it is “a safe bet that no Russian [or Chinese] leader will ever appear before an international court of justice for war crimes . . . . The same is true of . . . US or British generals for war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Might, or a seat on the UN security council, still appears to be right. If the arm of international law is long, it is also selective. . . . If impunity is to end, jurisdiction has to be universal.”
Taylor’s conviction was for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sierra Leone. But the conviction reminded Liberians of the horrible similar crimes committed in their country by Taylor and his forces.
An expert on Liberia stated that in “Liberia, Mr. Taylor fought a brutal campaign against West African peacekeepers and other armed factions. As many as 250,000 Liberians out of a prewar population of just over [3,000,000] lost their lives, while more than [1,000,000] others became refugees — crimes for which no one has yet been held accountable. An internationally brokered peace deal in 1997 led to the travesty of a frightened population’s electing Mr. Taylor president for fear of what would happen if he did not get his way. He was driven from power only in 2003.” Moreover, “many of his closest former associates remain at large and active in public life . . . . Mr. Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, who filed for divorce after his fall from power in part to protect her assets from international sanctions, is a member of the Liberian Senate. So is Prince Y. Johnson, a onetime Taylor ally who literally butchered President Samuel K. Doe at the start of the civil war and was so certain of his impunity that he had the entire episode videotaped for posterity. Far from becoming a pariah, Mr. Johnson played kingmaker in Liberia’s presidential election last year, delivering the bloc of votes that assured President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf a second term.”
The previously mentioned New York Times editorial said that Taylor now “must also be held accountable for his role in Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Liberia needs to enact the legislation to bring him, and the other murderous warlords from that era, to trial either in Liberian or international courts.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also remembered that Taylor and his forces had committed grave crimes in his native Liberia, but had not been subject to any criminal prosecutions for those crimes. Said AI, “during “the 14-year Liberian civil war that raged while Taylor was first the leader of one of the numerous armed opposition groups and later the President, all parties to the conflict committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murders along ethnic lines, as well as torture, rapes and other crimes of sexual violence, abductions, and recruitment and use child soldiers.” After the end of the civil war, AI said the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation commission had recommended “that a criminal tribunal be established to prosecute people identified as responsible for crimes under international law [but that it] is yet to be implemented, as are most TRC recommendations on legal and other institutional reforms, accountability, and reparations. The lack of justice for the victims of the Liberian conflict is shocking. The government of Liberia must end the reign of impunity by enacting the necessary legislation and acting on its duty to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators.”
Finally, two African observers commented that justice having “had to come from international courts does not reflect well on . . . Liberia in particular. The process exposes the failure by Liberians to provide themselves with a legal and judiciary system capable of effectively administering justice.” More generally “the verdict and the process should be a wakeup call to Africans. The successful conviction for such crimes is a glaring example of the failure of Africans to govern themselves effectively. . . . Africans must focus on building strong institutions to deal with human rights violations ourselves . . . .” On the other hand, the conviction “informs future Liberian, and indeed African, dictators and tyrants that they cannot escape justice by hedging their bets on a dysfunctional domestic legal system. Where national systems are incapable of adequately and effectively prosecuting leaders who engage in wanton violations of human rights, citizens can look to the international criminal court for justice.”