An international court’s conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting war crimes marks the first time in the modern era that a former head of state has been found guilty of human rights violations and represents an acceleration in the establishment of global justice. At the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam in the Netherlands on Thursday, Presiding Judge Richard Lussick said the 64-year-old gave “sustained and significant” support to rebels who carried out a series of atrocities during the 1991-2002 Sierra Leonean civil war in which tens of thousands died. That backing included giving arms, ammunition, communications equipment and advice to a rebel force who became notorious for brutal executions, dismemberment and sexual assaults – often both carried out by and suffered by children. “Mr. Taylor, the trial chamber unanimously finds you guilty” of 11 charges including terror, murder, rape, sexual slavery and conscripting child soldiers, Lussick said. “The accused is criminally responsible … for aiding and abetting in the crimes.”
Taylor’s conviction also implicitly resuscitates the hope that those who trade in blood diamonds will face repercussions. During the trial, the court heard that one of the rewards for Taylor’s support for the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was uncut blood diamonds mined in Sierra Leone. Taylor later gave a bag of uncut dirty stones to the supermodel, Naomi Campbell, who was called to testify at the trial in 2010. Efforts to eradicate blood diamonds – stones that are either mined in a conflict zone or are used to pay for war, or both – were all but crushed last year with the effective collapse of the Kimberley Process, a self-regulated international certification scheme for diamonds, over accusations that it was failing to address the links between diamonds, and violence and tyranny. Taylor’s conviction offers an alternative route for those hoping to do just that.
Though the court did not convict Taylor of directly commanding the atrocities, the verdict nevertheless represents a milestone in attempts to set up a system of global justice designed to call to account national leaders guilty of massive human rights violations who have no hope of being prosecuted in their own country. That initiative has roots stretching back to the aftermath of World War II, the Nuremberg Trials and the establishment of the United Nations as a forum to express consensus international will and hold wayward national leaders to account. As the U.N. formulated its tools of influence, such as resolutions, sanctions and peacekeepers, those were complemented by new legal structures. The 1990s and early 2000s saw those efforts gather pace with the establishment of several international courts: the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as well as the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Those in turn paved the way for the establishment of the permanent International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) in The Hague in 2005, which secured its first conviction, of a former Congolese warlord, earlier this year.
The road to establish a system of global justice has been long and hard. The I.C.C. can issue arrest warrants but has no police to enforce them, hence the spectacle of another head of state, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, walking free and even committing further atrocities, despite an I.C.C. indictment for war crimes in Darfur. Since all six of the I.C.C.’s other indictments have been issued against African leaders, the court is also regularly accused of an anti-Africa bias, something that can hinder its operations and undermine its legitimacy. Still other critics say the wheels of international justice turning too slowly. Taylor was arrested way back in 2006. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack in his cell before his trial could conclude.
More fundamentally, the whole idea of international justice is often said to be at odds with the interests of national peace. If bad, violent leaders know they will face retribution on leaving office, the argument goes, what’s their incentive to do so, or even give up the gun? If Thursday’s conviction is a significant advance for the practice of global accountability, that quandary is one the supporters of global law have yet to successully address. The leader of the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony – the first man indicted by the I.C.C. – is often held up as an example of how pursuing justice can get in the way of peace: Kony pulled out of peace talks in 2008 when the subject of the I.C.C. indictment was raised. Taylor is another illustration of this conundrum, says Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at the London international affairs think-tank, Chatham House who, in 2001-3, was a UN sanctions inspector in Sierra Leone. “I still believe that the March 2003 indictment by the Special Court on 17 initial counts against Taylor upset sensitive negotiations with him,” says Vines. “The result was to have Taylor rush back to Monrovia and an unnecessary spike in conflict, claiming thousands of civilian lives. Prosecutors need to consider carefully the timing of indictments. The indictment by the I.C.C. of Bashir greatly complicated international mediation efforts in Sudan. Hopefully lessons can be learned, as clearly a ‘just’ peace, is better than just peace.”