President Obama in the final days of his presidency continues to press forward with additional implementation of the policy of normalization of relations with Cuba. The January 12 U.S.-Cuba agreement regarding migration associated with the U.S. ending two immigration benefits for Cubans was discussed in an earlier post.
Here we will discuss (a) the recent joint meeting regarding trafficking in persons; (b) another joint meeting regarding the two countries’ claims against each other; and (c) a new U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Recent comments by Cuban leaders about President-elect Trump also will be discussed.
Meeting Regarding Trafficking in Persons
On January 12 and 13 the two countries met in Washington, D.C. The Cuban delegation “outlined the measures that are being implemented in [Cuba] to prevent and address this scourge, as well as the support and assistance provided to the victims, as part of the “zero tolerance” policy implemented by Cuba in any form of trafficking in persons and other crimes related to sexual exploitation, labor, among others.”
Meeting Regarding Claims
On January 12 the U.S. State Department announced that the two countries were meeting in Havana that day for the third government-to-government meeting on claims. The meeting was to build upon their previous discussions for an exchange of views on technical details and methodologies regarding outstanding claims.
Outstanding U.S. claims include claims of U.S. nationals for expropriated property on the island in the early years of the Cuban Revolution that were certified by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, now with interest totaling $8 billion; claims related to unsatisfied U.S. court default judgments against Cuba; and claims held by the U.S. Government. The U.S. continues to view the resolution of these claims as a top priority.
Outstanding Cuban claims include those of the Cuban people for human and economic damages, as reflected in the default judgments issued by the Provincial People’s Court of Havana in 1999 and 2000 against the U.S. As stated in a prior post, these judgments were for $64 billion on behalf of eight Cuban social and mass organizations plus $54 billion on behalf of the Cuban Government for alleged U.S. efforts to subvert that government. (These were default judgments in that the U.S. did not appear or contest these lawsuits in Cuban courts.)
In addition, Cuba repeatedly has asserted at the U.N. General Assembly its damage claims against the U.S. for the latter’s embargo. Last November these alleged damages totaled $ 125 billion.
The representatives of both governments reiterated the importance and usefulness of continuing these exchanges.
As usual, the governments’ public announcements about these closed-door sessions are not illuminating. Prior posts have discussed some of these claims and proposed ways to resolve them, primarily by an international arbitration proceeding at the Permanent Court for Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands.
Agreement Regarding Law Enforcement
On January 16, in Havana the MOU was signed by Jeffrey DeLaurentis, chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and Vice Adm. Julio Cesar Gandarilla, the newly appointed Cuban interior minister. It provides for the two countries “to cooperate in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and other international criminal activities.”
“The arrangement will establish a framework for strengthening our partnership on counternarcotics, counterterrorism, legal cooperation, and money laundering, including technical exchanges that contribute to a strong U.S.-Cuba law enforcement relationship,” the White House statement said. “The arrangement will establish a framework for strengthening our partnership on counternarcotics, counterterrorism, legal cooperation, and money laundering, including technical exchanges that contribute to a strong U.S.-Cuba law enforcement relationship,” the White House statement said.
The U.S. National Security Council stated, “The goals of the President’s Cuba policy have been simple: to help the Cuban people achieve a better future for themselves and to advance the interests of the United States. While significant differences between our governments continue, the progress of the last two years reminds the world of what is possible when we are defined not by the past but by the future we can build together.”
Granma from Havana reported that the agreement covered “the prevention and combating of terrorist acts; drug trafficking; crimes committed through the use of information and communication technologies, and cyber security issues of mutual interest; trafficking in persons; migrant smuggling; flora and fauna trafficking; money laundering; the falsification of identity and travel documents; contraband, including firearms, their parts, components, ammunition, explosives, cash and monetary instruments.”
Cuban Officials’ Recent Comments About President-elect Trump
The Guardian from London reports that in a recent interview Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat with respect to the U.S., said it is “‘too early” to predict which path the new administration will follow. “There are . . . [some] functionaries, businessmen [other than anti-normalization Cuban-Americans whom] Trump has named, including in government roles, who are in favor of business with Cuba, people who think that the US will benefit from cooperation with Cuba, on issues linked to the national security of the US.” Cuban officials say that they plan to wait for action rather than words because Trump has repeatedly flip-flopped on the issue of rapprochement – and also put his business interests above his country’s laws.
Nevertheless Vidal warned, “Aggression, pressure, conditions, impositions do not work with Cuba. This is not the way to attempt to have even a minimally civilized relationship with Cuba.”
Her analysis was echoed by Ricardo Alarcón, who spent 30 years representing Cuba at the United Nations and another 20 years as president of the country’s National Assembly, before retiring in 2013. He said, “For two years we have been talking to a sophisticated president with an intelligent, skillful discourse. Now we have a gentleman who is capable of saying anything and nobody is sure what he is going to do.”
On December 30th Cuban authorities cancelled an open-microphone event at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and detained or arrested its organizers. The principal detainee was Tania Bruguera, a Cuban citizen who lives on the island and in Miami, Florida and who is a performance artist. She intended to provide an open-microphone for any attendee to give a one-minute statement on his or her opinions and recommendations for Cuba’s future.
This cancellation and related arrests have provoked strong condemnation from the U.S. Department of State and major U.S. newspapers. Initially I was persuaded by such condemnations and worried that they would foster U.S. political resistance to recent U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. After further investigation, however, I have come to reject such harsh condemnations. In order to understand this conclusion, this post will examine what happened in Havana, the reactions from the State Department and western newspapers and then the reasons why I reject such condemnations.
Cuban Events Relating to the Open-Mike Performance
On December 30th Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera was planning to stage an open-microphone event, “Yo tambien exijo,” [I also demand],” in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, the huge public square usually reserved for large government-sponsored events. (The photo on the top shows an empty Plaza while the other one has a large crowd in attendance.) She planned to give any attendee a one-minute platform to discuss his or her opinions about, and recommendations for, Cuba’s future. She told the U.S. National Public Radio that she wanted “people in the street [to] come and share . . . [their] doubts, [their] happiness – whatever [they] think right now about what is happening in Cuba, and what is the idea of Cuba that [they] want?”
Bruguera was proceeding with these plans even though her application for a permit had been denied and even though the Government’s National Fine Arts Council had told her that it would not be providing her with institutional support for the event as proposed because it “would negatively impact public opinion, in a key time of negotiation between the Cuban government and the government of the United States.”
On December 30th the Council issued a public statement documenting its decision not to support the event. It said, “Under current circumstances, it is unacceptable performing this purported performance in the symbolic space of the Plaza of the Revolution, especially considering the extensive media coverage and manipulation that has been in the media broadcasters counterrevolution.”
The Council, however, also stated that Bruguera had rejected its suggestions on conducting the event subject to the following conditions: (a) move the event to the National Museum of Fine Arts, a prestigious cultural institution in the field of visual arts; (b) the Museum would be freely open to diverse people of dissimilar social sectors; (c) the government would “reserve the right” to bar people whose “sole interest is to be provocative;” and (d) the performance would be limited to 90 minutes.
Just hours before the planned event, Cuban police detained, on public disorder charges, Bruguerea and at least three leading dissidents: Antonio Rodiles, the head of Citizens Demand for Another Cuba; Eliezer Avila, the leader of the opposition group Somos Mas; and Reinaldo Escobar, a senior editor of a dissident website 14medio.com. Escobar’s spouse, Blogger Yoani Sanchez, was also detained at her home by police. There were reports that up to 50 members of the political opposition were detained.
Ms. Bruguera was released the next afternoon along with most of the political dissidents. She then announced she would hold a news conference and public gathering on the Malecón, Havana’s coastal highway, at the memorial to the Maine, the American battleship that sank in Havana Harbor in 1898. Cuban agents, however, stopped her en route to the gathering and took her away for interrogation. She was told she could not leave Cuba “for two or three months” while the case was being processed. Again she was released.
However, on January 1, 2015, she was arrested again along with several dissidents when they went to a jail to demand the release of 15 additional dissidents who had been arrested on the day of the planned event. The next day (January 2) she was released.
Reactions to the Cancelation and Arrests
On December 30th, the U.S. Department of State issued a Press Statement saying the U.S. was “deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists . . . [and] strongly condemn[ed] the Cuban government’s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom expression, and intimidate citizens.”
The Statement added, “Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are internationally recognized human rights, and the Cuban government’s lack of respect for these rights, as demonstrated by today’s detentions, is inconsistent with Hemispheric norms and commitments. We urge the Government of Cuba to end its practice of repressing these and other internationally protected freedoms and to respect the universal human rights of Cuban citizens.”
The Statement concluded that the U.S. has “always said we would continue to speak out about human rights, and as part of the process of normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States will continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions, just like their fellow members of civil society throughout the Americas are allowed to do.”
Also on December 30th Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson tweeted “Freedom of expression remains core of US policy on #Cuba; we support activists exercising those rights and condemn today’s detentions.”
These views were shared by the New York Times’ December 30th editorial, “Cuba Turns Off Critics’ Open Mike.” It said, “By stifling critical voices, the Cuban government is showing its unwillingness to tolerate basic freedoms most citizens in the hemisphere enjoy.”
The Times’ editorial continued, “This move, unfortunately, will amplify the criticisms of those who opposed Mr. Obama’s historic shift on Cuba policy. Heavy-handed tactics by the Castro government will give them ammunition next year, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, to stymie the Obama administration’s steps to ease the embargo through executive authority and dim the prospects of legislative change to pare back the web of sanctions Washington imposes on Cuba. That result would be a shame and, in the long run, self-defeating for Havana.”
The editorial on the same subject by the Washington Post, which earlier opposed the December 17th reconciliation, was in the same vein. It stated, “[T]he Castro regime has been left free to continue stifling dissent, while reaping the economic and political benefits of Mr. Obama’s ‘engagement.’ Raúl Castro declared in a speech shortly after the agreement was announced that the Communist political system would remain unchanged. Two weeks later, not one of the 53 political prisoners the White House said would be freed — about half of the total identified by human rights activists — has been reported released.”
The Washington Post editorial concluded, “Cubans who seek basic freedoms continue to be arrested, harassed and silenced, while the regime celebrates what it portrays as ‘victory’ over the United States. If support for the Cuban people and American values is supposed to be the point of this process, then it is off to a very poor start.”
People opposed to the resumption of relations with Cuba were quick to hold up the arrests as a sign that the Castro government had no intention of pursuing political change and would reap only economic benefits from Mr. Obama’s moves. For example, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a Cuban-American, tweeted, “Castro govt. arrests of activists in #Havana exposes the folly of new Obama #CubaPolicy.”
Rejection of the Condemnation
As a long-time member of the American Civil Liberties Union and as a pro bono attorney in one of its important free speech cases, I am a strong believer in the importance of free speech. Therefore, I initially concurred in the State Department and New York Times’ condemnation of Cuba’s cancellation of this event and related arrests, and I worried that this controversy might cause the U.S. to abandon the recently announced U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.
On the other hand, I was and continue to be troubled by the State Department and most of the articles about this event not mentioning the Cuban Fine Arts Council’s willingness to support the event in another location and with certain limits. This action by the Arts Council suggests at a minimum that the State Department and western media are over-reacting to these events and unfairly rushing to judgment.
These U.S. critics also forget that governmental authorities in the U.S. sometimes determine that it is not appropriate to stage a protest at a particular time and place. It just happened in my home state of Minnesota at the Mall of America (MOA) on a big shopping day (December 20th). Although MOA officials had told the organizers that it was against its policies for them to hold a “Black Lives Matter” protest at the Mall on that day, they did so anyway as this video shows. After 2,000 to 3,000 protesters flooded a Mall rotunda and held “die-ins” in front of several nearby businesses, riot-gear-clad police officers arrested 25 for trespass, peacefully dispersed the crowd and tried to block people from re-entering the rotunda. Afterwards the local city attorney announced plans “to file additional charges against ‘ringleaders’ of the protest and to seek restitution for the costs of 250 police at the event and lost sales during the two to three hours when more than 75 stores in the mall were closed.” On January 5th some of the protesters spoke against such prosecution at a city council meeting. This story obviously is not yet over.
In addition, there is a report that raises the much more serious question of whether the event was an idea of Cubans acting by themselves. According to the Wall Street Journal, an opponent of reconciliation with Cuba, at the scheduled time for the event, “Cuban cellphones received mysterious messages from a Florida area code offering cheap beer to all those gathering on the plaza.” This was confirmed in an interview by U.S. National Public Radio with Marc Frank, a U.S. journalist who was one of about a dozen people at the Plaza at the time of the planned event. He said, “text messages were sent from somewhere in Miami to a lot of cell phones here, including mine, basically saying that there’s going to be an event at the Plaza de la Revolución, and there’d be free beer.” Frank added that “Tania is an artist, lives some in Cuba and mainly in Miami, . . . [but] she’s not really well-known in Cuba at all.”
These messages about free beer in the Plaza from a Miami telephone number raise the question of whether the event was actually being planned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or another U.S. government agency or by Cuban-Americans opposed to the reconciliation of the two countries.
As discussed in prior posts, USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) had funded via a private contractor at least three covert (or as the agency prefers to say “discreet”) programs in Cuba to promote civil society and dissent or regime change, all without the prior knowledge or consent of the Cuban government. One was for U.S. citizen Alan Gross to take communications equipment to Cuba, for which he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for violating its laws. Another such USAID program via a private contractor unsuccessfully tried to create a Cuban social media program Yet another used Central Americans to promote purported HIV informational efforts on the island. The final one that has been discovered so far by journalists again via a private contractor attempted to infiltrate the Cuban rap-artist community.
These USAID programs were sharply criticized in a November New York Timeseditorial, as discussed in an earlier post. The editorial said, ““Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”
Instead, the Times’ November editorial argued, “The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most repressive governments in the world. Instead of stealth efforts to overthrow the government, American policy makers should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. They should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.” Moreover, “Washington should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”
Perhaps the Times forgot this editorial when it more recently lambasted the Cuban actions over the “open-microphone” event.
In any event, the U.S. government apparently has not learned the lesson outlined by the Times in October because the USAID website, which says it was last updated on December 16 (the day before the announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation), still contains general information about its Cuba programs to “[p]romote human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
In addition, on December 22, 2014 (five days after that announcement), the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issued a Public Notice of its “Request for Statements of Interest: Program Fostering Civil, Political and Labor Rights in Cuba.” The Bureau’s prospective funding of $11 million would be used for typically funded proposals, the Bureau said, like “[o]rganizational assistance to Cuban civil society to improve management, strategic planning, sustainability, and collaboration of local civil society groups; [o]ff-island trainings, short-term fellowships, or engagement; [d]istribution of software that would be easily accessible in an open society; . . . [and] ]a]ssistance mechanisms designed to provide independent Cuban civil society with tools, opportunities, and trainings that civil society counterparts in open societies can access.”
Both the USAID and State Department statements read as if they are promoting programs in Cuba without the knowledge, cooperation or agreement of the Cuban government. This is contrary to President Obama’s statement in his nationally televised speech on December 17th, in which he said the U.S. would “raise those differences [with the Cuban government] directly . . .[such as] democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement [with the Cuban government].” He added, “no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there.”
Similar thoughts were expressed the same day in the White House’s FACT SHEET: Charting a New Course on Cuba.” It said, “We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.” It also stated, “The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba, and we will encourage reforms in our high level engagement with Cuban officials.”
Although President Obama apparently was talking about encouraging the Cuban government to expand the Cuban people’s rights to express different opinions on what their government should do, a prior post shows some ambiguity in these statements that could allow the continuation of the USAID and State Department’s covert or “discreet” efforts to promote regime change.
If the open-microphone event, in fact, was orchestrated by USAID or some other U.S. government agency, it is Orwellian. Such programs purport to promote democracy and human rights with undemocratic and non-human rights means. Such programs are publicly mentioned—in very general terms—on U.S. government websites yet are conducted covertly or “discreetly” on the island. Such programs are hostile to a country with which the U.S. purportedly is attempting to build a normal and respectful diplomatic relationship. These programs also logically motivate Cuban authorities to be vigilant in reacting to events like the “open-microphone” one.
In other words it is horribly stupid and unwise to have such behind-the-back programs when the two countries are embarking on a long and complicated path for full reconciliation. As the New York Times said in November, the U.S. “should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”
 The Plaza is the 31st largest public square in the world; it measures 72,000 square meters (774,936 square feet) and has been the site for crowds of 1 million for major speeches by Fidel Castro and for a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. The idea that the open-microphone event might create such a large crowd should have been seen as ridiculous by everyone, including the Cuban authorities, and a small gathering like the 12 or so that showed up on the 30th would have demonstrated the over-reaction of the those authorities in shutting it down and the State Department and western media in attacking the shut-down.
 Before the protest the local city (Bloomington) sent a letter to the protest organizers warning that the city would enforce the mall’s private-property rights under the authority of a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that held the MOA was a private entity with the right to exclude demonstrators.
 The Director of Security Operations at Telecommunications Company of Cuba reported that since December 21st Cuba had been receiving electronic messages calling for participation in an event with Tania Bruguera. These messages came from a platform “Wake Cuba,” and these messages were similar to previous ones paid for by USAID. Another Cuban source states that some Cuban email addresses were hacked and used to send emails to Cubans about this event.
 Gross on December 17th was released from Cuban prison and returned to the U.S.
On June 20th, the United Nations refugee agency (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR) reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced (IDPs) people was 51.2 million in 2013. This is the first time after World War II that the number has topped 50 million. (Articles about this report may be found in the New York Times and the Guardian.)
This represented an increase of 6 million over the prior year due largely to the war in Syria and conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Here is a graph showing the totals (with components), 1993-2013:
Here is another graph showing the largest sources of refugees in 2013:
Developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees. The top five host countries are Pakistan, 1.6 million; Iran, 0.9 million; Lebanon, 0.9 million; Jordan, 0.6 million; and Turkey, o.6 million. The U.S. ranks 10th as a host country with 0.3 million.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said,”We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict. Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.” He added, “The international community has to overcome its differences and find solutions to the conflicts of today in South Sudan, Syria, Central African Republic and elsewhere. Non-traditional donors need to step up alongside traditional donors.”
Serge Schmemann of the New York Times editorial board observed that the report indicates that half “the refugees are children; a growing number of these are on their own . . . . More than half of the 6.3 million refugees under the refugee agency’s care have been in exile for five years or more, testifying to conflicts that rage on and on.” Schmemann added that the “stunning figures offer a bitter counterpoint to the growing resistance in Europe and the United States to letting in immigrants and asylum seekers, and to the endless sterile blame-games about responsibility for the various conflicts.”
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 Timeseditorial 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 Timeseditorial 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.”