On June 9, 2015, Judge Santiago Pedraz Gomez of Spain’s Audiencia Nacional (National Court) terminated Spain’s criminal investigation of three U.S. soldiers for the death of a Spanish cameraman who was killed in Iraq while covering the 2003 allied invasion of the country.
The reason for the termination was a 2014 statutory amendment narrowing Spain’s universal jurisdiction statute and Spain’s Supreme Court’s May 2015, decision upholding that amendment in its affirmance of the dismissal of a case investigating alleged genocide in Tibet.
Judge Pedraz in his June 9th decision deplored this amendment, which “prevents the persecution of any war crime committed against a Spaniard save in the unlikely situation that the alleged culprits have taken refuge in Spain.” As a result, Spaniards will be legally unprotected in similar cases that might arise in future. The Judge said, “Faced with such a crime committed against [Spanish] journalists or persons considered to be part of the civilian population (such as aid workers), neither the relatives nor the prosecutors will be able to request the opening of proceedings [in Spain] to at least identify the victim, request an autopsy or other urgent procedure, or investigate the circumstances.”
Earlier, in March 2014, and immediately after the adoption of the amendment, Judge Pedraz decided that the amendment could not be applied to this case because, he said, it contradicted Spain’s obligations under the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Under that treaty, he said, Spain was obligated to “prosecute the crime (search for people and make them appear) regardless of the perpetrators’ nationalities and wherever they may be.” Therefore, “the judge must refrain from applying . . . [the new statutory amendment]. The rule of law requires the existence of independent bodies to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, by impartially applying standards that express the people’s will and control the activities of public authorities.”
This decision was appealed, and in October 2014 the 20 judges of the Criminal Chamber of the National Court allowed the case to proceed for a procedural error by the prosecution without a ruling on the merits.
 Under customary international law and certain treaties, a nation state’s courts have universal jurisdiction (UJ) over certain crimes of international concern regardless of where the crime was committed or the nationality of the victim or perpetrator. These crimes of international concern are (a) piracy; (b) slavery; (c) war crimes; (d) crimes against peace; (e) crimes against humanity; (f) genocide; and (g) torture. Spain implemented this principle in 1985 in its own domestic statutory law by conferring such jurisdiction on its National Court for certain crimes, including genocide; terrorism; and any other crimes under international treaties or conventions that should be prosecuted in Spain. The March 2014 amendment of this statute, among other things, restricted universal jurisdiction for war crimes to cases where the accused individual is a Spanish citizen or a foreign citizen who is habitually resident in Spain or a foreigner who is found in Spain and whose extradition had been denied by Spanish authorities.
 Spain’s National Court in June 2014 decided to terminate its investigation of alleged genocide in Tibet because of the amendment to the statute. Plaintiffs then appealed to Spain’s Supreme Court, which in May 2015 rejected that appeal.
 The earlier history of this case was discussed in another post.
Spain currently is in the process of adopting an amendment to its statute regarding universal jurisdiction for one of its courts. This post will examine that forthcoming amendment after looking at the background of that amendment.
Under customary international law and certain treaties, a nation state has universal jurisdiction over certain crimes of international concern regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of the victims or perpetrators. These crimes of international concern are (a) piracy; (b) slavery; (c) war crimes; (d) crimes against peace; (e) crimes against humanity; (f) genocide; and (g) torture. (This was discussed in a prior post.)
Spain implemented this principle in 1985 in its own domestic statutory law by conferring such jurisdiction on its National Court (La Audiencia Nacional) for the following crimes: (a) genocide; (b) terrorism; (c) piracy and hijacking of aircraft; (d) falsification of foreign currency; (e) prostitution and corruption of minors or incompetents; (f) trafficking in illegal, psychotropic, toxic and narcotic drugs; and (g) any other crimes under international treaties or conventions that should be prosecuted in Spain.
In 2009 Spain amended this statute to add these additional crimes for universal jurisdiction: crimes against humanity; illegal trafficking or illegal immigration of persons; and female genital mutilation (FGM). In addition, the amendment specified that these conditions or limitations had to be established for such jurisdiction: the alleged perpetrators were in Spain; or the victims were of Spanish nationality; or there was another connecting link to Spain.
Finally the 2009 amendment specified that for such Spanish jurisdiction to exist, another country or international tribunal had not started a process involving an investigation and successful prosecution of such offenses; if there were such another process, then the Spanish court should suspend or stay its case until the other investigation and prosecution has been concluded. The latter provision is referred to as the subsidiary principle.
The New Amendment
On February 11, 2014, Spain’s Congress of Deputies (Congreso de los Diputados), the lower house of the country’s bicameral legislature (los Cortes Generales), approved another amendment to this statute (Article 23.4 of the 1985 Organic Law of the Judicial Power, as amended). Since the same political party (Party Popular) also controls Spain’s Senate, it is anticipated that the Senate will pass the bill as well. Here are the principal provisions of the amendment:
The following specific crimes were added for universal jurisdiction: (i) war crimes (crimes against persons or goods in armed conflict); (ii) torture and crimes against moral integrity; (iii) crimes under the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material; (iv) crimes covered by the Council of Europe Convention on the prevention and combatting of violence against women and domestic violence; (v) offenses of corruption between private or international economic transactions; and (vi) crimes of enforced disappearances under the International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
Greater specificity was provided for offenses other than piracy covered by the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation and its Protocol; offenses other than hijacking of aircraft under the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation and its Supplemental Protocol; crimes against sexual freedom committed on children; and trafficking in human beings.
For genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, universal jurisdiction exists only if the accused individual is a Spanish citizen or a foreign citizen who is habitually resident in Spain or a foreigner who is found in Spain and whose extradition had been denied by Spanish authorities.
For torture and disappearances, universal jurisdiction exists only if the prospective defendant is a Spanish citizen, or the victims were (at the time of the events in question) Spanish citizens and the person accused of the crime was in Spanish territory.
Only public prosecutors and victims may initiate criminal proceedings under universal jurisdiction; other private individuals or groups (acusaciones populares) may not do so.
Pending cases under the universal jurisdiction provision would be stayed and thereafter dismissed if they could not satisfy these new conditions.
There currently are 12 cases under this jurisdictional provision pending in Spanish courts, and presumably they all will be dismissed under this new amendment. They are the following:
Genocide in Tibet. In 2006 the court commenced an investigation against five former Chinese Communist leaders, including former President Jiang Zemin, for alleged genocide in Tibet. In November 2013, the court issued arrest warrants for these individuals, and in early February 2014, the court rejected the prosecutor’s motion to quash the warrants. As a result, the court on February 10th asked INTERPOL to issue international arrest warrants for the Chinese individuals.
Genocide in Guatemala. In 2003 the court commenced an investigation of eight former senior Guatemalan officials for alleged genocide, terrorism and torture.
Genocide in Sahara. In 2006 a NGO commenced a case against 31 Moroccan military officers for alleged genocide in the Sahara Desert.
Genocide in Rwanda. In 2005 an investigation was commenced against 69 senior Rwandan officials for alleged genocide and murder, and in 2008 arrest warrants were issued for 40 Rwandan soldiers.
Holocaust. In 2008 a case was commenced by Spanish survivors of the Holocaust against four SS guards, and in 2009 international arrest warrants were issued for three of these guards.
Murder of Spanish Diplomat. In 2012 the court commenced an investigation against seven Chilean officials for alleged participation in the 1976 kidnapping and assassination of a Spanish diplomat, Carmelo Soria. Last year a Chilean court rejected Spain’s request for the arrest of the officials.
Persecution of Falun Gong. In 2006 the court started an investigation of alleged persecution of Falun Gong practitioners by the Chinese government between 1999 and 2002.
Israeli Attack on “Freedom Flotilla” to Gaza. In 2010 the court started an investigation of Israeli officials for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity for an armed assault on ships with materials for Palestinians in Gaza.
Murder of Spanish Journalist. In 2003 the court started an investigation of alleged U.S. military personnel in the 2003 death of a Spanish journalist, Jose Couso, in Iraq.
Torture of Detainees on CIA Flights. In 2006 the court started an investigation of possible violations by CIA or other U.S. personnel with respect to detainees on CIA flights stopping at an airport in Spanish territory.
Iraqi attack on Iranian refugee camp. In 2009 the court started to investigate an alleged Iraqi military attack on an Iranian refugee camp in 2008.
Murder of the Jesuit priests. In 1999 the court commenced to investigate the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, and in 2011 the court ordered the arrest of 20 former Salvadoran military officials.
The immediate precipitating causes for the Spanish government’s seeking and obtaining approval of this amendment at this time are widely seen as the Spanish court’s issuance of arrest warrants, and seeking INTERPOL arrest warrants, for high officials of the Chinese Communist Party, including a former president of the country, for alleged genocide in Tibet; China’s vehement protests of these developments; and the Spanish government’s desire for a friendly economic relationship with China.
Indeed, on February 11th, China’s Foreign Ministry said, “China is extremely dissatisfied with and resolutely opposed to the wrong actions of the relevant Spanish [court] taken while ignoring China’s solemn position. Whether or not this issue can be appropriately dealt with is related to the healthy development of ties. We hope that the Spanish government can distinguish right from wrong.”
Human rights groups opposed the current proposed amendment. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Justice and Accountability and 14 others argue that under multilateral treaties ratified by Spain it has a legal obligation to prosecute any suspected offender of those treaties—regardless of where the crime was committed, who is found in Spain. Moreover, these groups say, the International Court of Justice explained in the case Belgium v. Senegal, this duty to prosecute arises “irrespective of the existence of a prior request for the extradition of the suspect” and requires States to adopt legislation giving its courts the necessary jurisdiction.
Although I regard myself as an human rights advocate and have great respect for Amnesty International and the other NGOs that have opposed the amendment, I dissent from their objections.
In my opinion, the amendment is a reaffirmation of Spain’s implementation of such jurisdiction. Indeed, as noted above, but not acknowledged in the NGOs’ objections, the amendment expands the crimes that are subject to universal jurisdiction and provides greater specificity for some of the crimes previously covered by the statute. This is important for future use of the statute and for due process notice to individuals who may be charged with such crimes in the future.
The main objection appears to be the amendment’s requirement for universal jurisdiction in some instances for an accused foreigner to be present (habitually resident or found) in Spain. This is akin to the U.S. constitutional due process requirement for a defendant to be present in the jurisdiction in order for personal jurisdiction in civil cases to exist, and I believe it is a reasonable requirement for criminal cases in Spain under its universal jurisdiction provisions.
Moreover, in many, if not all, of the previously mentioned 12 pending cases in Spain, the defendants have never been in Spain, and this has lead to the Spanish court’s unsuccessful efforts to enforce its own arrest warrants or the INTERPOL international arrest warrants. As a result, actual criminal prosecutions in these 12 cases have not even been commenced.
I know this is true in the case against 20 former Salvadoran military officers for their alleged involvement in the horrendous murders of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in November 1989. I think it is outrageous that these 20 individuals so far have not faced any criminal accountability or punishment for their alleged complicity in this awful crime and thus have de facto immunity or impunity for their actions, and I had hoped that the criminal case in Spain under its universal jurisdiction statute would bring them to justice. But unfortunately that has not happened. (Other posts on Spain’s case regarding the Jesuits’ murders, 6/15/11 and 8/26/11.)
Objection also has been made to the amendment’s imposing a requirement for universal jurisdiction in some instances for Spain to have denied a request for extradition. But at least as I read the English translation of the amendment, this requirement exists only for those foreigners who are temporarily in Spain and does not apply to foreigners who habitually reside in the country. For the passers-by this seems like a due process concern. How would you like while on holiday for one week on the Costa Brava to be charged with a serious crime by a Spanish court for something you allegedly did in the U.S. 10 years ago?
Furthermore, the amendment’s limitations also appear to be reasonable to make efficient use of Spanish judicial resources.
Finally, the Spanish government, in my opinion, has a legitimate interest in its efforts to have friendly economic relations with China as Spain continues to struggle to emerge from its economic difficulties, including high unemployment. Pursing justice for horrible crimes committed elsewhere is a laudable purpose and goal, but it is not the only purpose and goal of the Spanish government or any country’s government.
As an U.S. scholar stated, “With unemployment at 25 percent, Spaniards would be right to wonder why their officials were using taxpayer resources for other peoples’ problems and simultaneously risking even more Iberian jobs.”
 These treaties include the Geneva Conventions; the U.N. Convention against Torture; the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances; the Hague Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft; and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.
On October 5, 2012, Engility Corporation (formerly known as L-3 Services, Inc. and as Titan Corporation and hereafter “Titan” or “Engility”) paid $5.28 million to settle claims brought by 71 Iraqi citizens for the corporation’s alleged participation in their torture and inhuman treatment at the now notorious Abu Ghraib and other prisons in that country.
Proceedings in the Case Against Engility
The case started in June 2008 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. The complaint, which was twice amended by October 2008, asserted that during 2003 through 2007 the plaintiffs were tortured at these prisons, which were then under the control of the U.S. Armed Forces. At that time L-3 Services, Inc. was a private contractor that provided translators at the prisons who allegedly participated in, or approved of, the torture and inhuman treatment. The alleged acts of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment included sexual assault, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, threats (including use of unleashed dogs) and denial of medical treatment.
The complaints sought unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) and state tort law (assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent hiring and supervision of employees).
On July 29, 2010, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte denied L-3’s motion to dismiss the complaint. The court’s careful and detailed opinion ruled that (a) aliens who had been detained abroad by the U.S. were not barred from bringing suit in U.S. courts over their detention; (b) private government contractors were not immune from such suits; (c) the political question doctrine did not apply and, therefore, the case was justiciable; (d) private parties, including corporations, were subject to ATS claims for war crimes, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; and (e) Iraqi law, not Maryland law, applied to the state-law claims possibly subject to Maryland public policy forbidding such application of foreign law.
Immediately after that decision, Titan filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. A three-judge panel of that court, 2 to 1, in September 2011, reversed the district court while deciding that the plaintiffs’ state law claims were preempted by federal law and that the case should be dismissed. This decision, however, was overturned by the entire Fourth Circuit in May 2012, when it decided, 11 to 3, that it did not have interlocutory jurisdiction to consider the appeal on the merits.
Thereafter the case was remanded to the district court after the Fourth Circuit had denied Engility’s motion to stay the remand pending the filing and resolution of the corporation’s forthcoming petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
After the remand and Engility’s failure to file a petition with the Supreme Court, the parties on October 5, 2012, agreed to the previously mentioned settlement, and on October 10th the plaintiffs dismissed their case and thereby terminated the litigation.
This case was sponsored by New York City’s Center for Constitutional Rights, which is “dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The Center’s extensive experience and expertise in litigating cases against corporations under the ATS and other laws are exceedingly important for successful prosecution of these cases. Their backing also provides the resources, persistence and stamina necessary to conduct such cases over a long time period (here, over four years) in various courts.
A similar case is pending in the federal court in Virginia in preparation for trial against another U.S. corporation, CACI International, Inc., which also was involved in interrogation and translation of detainees at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons. It is in pretrial discovery awaiting trial and is also sponsored by the Center for Constitutional Rights. It was reviewed in a prior post.
Another similar case sponsored by the Center, Saleh v. Titan, was brought by more than 250 Iraqi plaintiffs against CACI International, Inc. and Titan. In September 2009 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, 2 to 1, affirmed the dismissal of all claims against Titan and, reversing to the district court, also dismissed all claims against CACI. On June 27, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs petition for certiorari, thereby ending this case.
Overhanging all of these cases is another case awaiting decision in the U.S. Supreme Court–Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell)–that raises the issue whether corporations may be sued under the ATS. This case has been discussed in prior posts.
On September 2nd Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the retired South African Anglican Archbishop, said, “The immorality of the United States and Great Britain’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, has destabilized [sic] and polarised [sic] the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history.” Therefore, Tutu continued, “In a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life [George W. Bush and Tony Blair] should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions [at the International Criminal Court] in the Hague.”
These remarks in London’s Observer newspaper followed Tutu’s withdrawal last week as a speaker at a conference in South Africa because Tony Blair was also to be a conference speaker.
Tony Blair immediately responded to Tutu’s comments. Blair said, Tutu had repeated “the old canard that we lied about the intelligence [on Iraq] is completely wrong as every single independent analysis of the evidence has shown.” In addition, according to Blair, “to say [as Tutu had] that the fact that Saddam massacred hundreds of thousands of his citizens is irrelevant to the morality of removing him is bizarre.” Finally Blair claimed that “despite the problems, Iraq today has an economy three times or more in size with child mortality rate cut by a third of what it was.”
However morally appropriate Tutu was on his criticism of the decision to start the Iraq war, his call for ICC prosecution of Bush and Blair is not legally well founded.
That was the legal conclusion on February 9, 2006, by the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor in response to many communications expressing concern regarding the launching of military operations and the resulting human loss. This conclusion was documented in a detailed memorandum by the ICC Prosecutor that set forth the following reasons:
The ICC did not have jurisdiction over any actions by Iraqi or U.S. citizens because Iraq and the U.S. were not States Parties to the Court’s Rome Statute.
Although the Court had jurisdiction over the crime of “aggression” under the Statute’s Article 5, that crime had not yet been defined and thus could not be a basis for any charges.
Although there was information indicating war crimes of intentional killing and inhuman treatment had been committed, the information did not suggest that they were “part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes” as required by Article 8 of the Statute.
There was no information that the Coalition forces had an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such”, as required in the Statute’s definition of the crime of genocide (Article 6).
There was no information of “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” as required in the Statute’s definition of crimes against humanity (Article 7).
Therefore, the Office of the Prosecutor stated the statutory requirements for initiating a formal investigation of the situation in Iraq had not been satisfied.
 As discussed in a prior post, a definition of the crime of aggression was agreed to at the Court’s June 2010 Kampala Review Conference, but its actual use by the Court will not happen until after January 1, 2017 and only if there is a two-thirds vote of approval of the amendment by the Court’s Assembly of States Parties and ratification of the amendment by at least 30 States Parties.
 There are many posts about the ICC on this blog. To find them, just click on “International Criminal Court” in the tag cloud to the right of this post.
A July 8th New York Timesheadline proclaims, “Arab Uprisings Point Up Flaw in Global Court.” It erroneously suggests that the people operating the International Criminal Court are stupid or cowardly or that the diplomats who in 1998 drafted the ICC’s governing treaty, the ICC’s Rome Statute, were similarly stupid or cowardly.
The article starts with the facts that the ICC has not initiated an investigation of human rights abuses in Yemen and Syria. That is lamentable, but it is not due to a flaw in the operations of the ICC or the Rome Statute.
It is due instead to the limitations on the Court’s jurisdiction that were intentionally established in the drafting of the Rome Statute because of opposition of states like the U.S. that did not want the Court commencing investigations or criminal prosecutions against their citizens if the state did not ratify that Statute.
That Statute’s Article 12 provides, in part, that the Court has jurisdiction if certain crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes) are committed on the territory of a state that is a party to the Rome Statute or by nationals of such a state. Neither Yemen nor Syria is such a party, as is true for all other states in the Mideast except Jordan. Thus, the Court does not have jurisdiction of such an investigation or prosecution under Article 12.
The Rome Statute’s Article 13(b) also provides jurisdiction for the Court if the U.N. Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression), refers a situation of suspected crimes of that nature to the ICC even if the state where the conduct occurred or whose nationals are involved had not ratified the Rome Statute. In fact, as the New York Times article points out, the Security Council has twice done so: Sudan (Darfur) and Libya.
However, as most people know, the U.N. Charter that was drafted in 1945 at the end of World War II grants in Article 27(3) a veto on any action by the Council to each of its five permanent members: the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [now Russia] and the Republic of China. The failure of the ICC to undertake any investigation of the Yemen situation is due to a threatened veto by the U.S. of such a referral.
With respect to Syria, the U.S. in June 2011 reportedly was seeking Russian and Chinese support for a Council referral of the situation to the Court, but that was obviously unsuccessful because no such proposal was actually advanced in the Council. In November 2011 four U.S. Senators (Dick Durbin, Benjamin Cardin, Robert Menendez and Barbara Boxer) sent a letter to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (Susan Rice) asking for such a Security Council referral. They said, “The people of Syria deserve to know that the people of the United States understand their plight, stand behind them, and will work to bring justice to the country.” Security Council referral of Syria to the ICC also has been endorsed by the New York Times.
The next month (December 2011) the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Security Council to make such a referral. But nothing happened, again because of threatened vetoes by Russia and China.
If there is any “flaw” in this structure with respect to Yemen and Syria it is the veto right of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Although many, if not most, of the U.N. members that are not permanent Council members dislike the superior status and veto rights of the permanent Council members and voice various suggestions for reform of the Security Council, expert observers of the U.N. do not think that is at all likely in the near future.
In the meantime, 121 of the 192 U.N. members are now parties to the Rome Statute, and the Court’s governing body (its Assembly of States Parties) is working towards its goal of universal ratification of the Rome Statute. If and when that happened, the Court could initiate investigations and prosecutions with respect to all such parties without Security Council action.
Over the last 60-plus years the peoples of the world through their nation-state governments have been struggling to climb out of the pits of depravity of World War II by creating or codifying international norms or human rights and by constructing mechanisms to protect individuals that are beyond the control of their own national governments while such governments still have sovereignty over most aspects of their lives. The creation and operation of the International Criminal Court and other so-called ad hoc international criminal tribunals are important pieces of this effort. This is an inherently difficult process, and many compromises are necessary in order to make any progress. But the story is not finished. Further development, I am confident, will occur.
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.”
On April 26, 2012, 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 as defined in the Court’s governing Statute.
The Court’s judgment was based upon detailed findings that the prosecution had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that:
Sierra Leone rebels had committed crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone by murder (Count 2), rape (Count 4), sexual slavery (Count 5), other inhumane acts (Count 8) and enslavement (Count 10).
Said rebels had committed violations of Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and of their Additional Protocol II in Sierra Leone by acts of terrorism (Count 1), violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder (Count 3); outrages upon personal dignity (Count 6); violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular cruel treatment (Count 7); and pillage (Count 11).
Said rebels had committed violations of international humanitarian law in Sierra Leone by conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities (Count 9).
Mr. Taylor had provided practical assistance, encouragement and moral support that had a substantial effect on the commission of said crimes by the rebels, and he knew that such crimes were being committed and that his actions would provide said practical assistance, encouragement or moral support to the commission of such crimes. Therefore, Mr. Taylor was guilty of the crime of aiding and abetting the commission of such crimes.
The Court, however, determined that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Taylor had participated in a common plan, design or purpose to commit the rebels’ crimes.
Mr. Taylor will be sentenced in the coming weeks. There is no death penalty in international criminal law, and any prison term would be served in a British prison pursuant to a special agreement with the Court.
The Court was established in 2002 in a partnership between the United Nations and Sierra Leone to prosecute those responsible for atrocities in a conflict that led almost half the population to flee and left an estimated 50,000 dead. With its main seat in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, the Court already has sentenced eight other leading members from different forces and rebel groups for crimes in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor is its last defendant whose trial was moved to The Hague in the Netherlands for fear of causing unrest in the region where he still has followers.
Not since Karl Doenitz, the German admiral who briefly succeeded Hitler upon his death, was tried and sentenced by the International Military Tribunal has a head of state been convicted by an international court.