The conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor for atrocities during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil conflict confirms that heads of state are not above the law, human rights groups said today.
But African democracy advocates said the International Criminal Court proceedings also highlighted the need to bolster democratic institutions, while others noted that the sub-continent has become “a convenient laboratory” to test concepts not applied elsewhere.
“The message is that there is nowhere left for murderous despots to hide,” says former UN deputy secretary-general Mark Malloch-Brown. “That is an extraordinary step forward in global accountability and responsibility.”
On the other hand, he concedes, “the threat of justice may make old leaders hang on,” including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Victims, leaders and civil society representatives packed the headquarters of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a modern building in the lush, hilly capital, AFP reports, to watch on monitors as the verdict unfolded in a courtroom thousands of kilometres (miles) away.
The prosecution “informs future Liberian, and indeed African, dictators and tyrants that they cannot escape justice by hedging their bets on a dysfunctional domestic legal system,” write Mwangi Kimenyi and John Mbaku, respectively senior fellow and director, and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative:
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. With the Taylor affair concluded, Liberians must now insist on and devote their efforts to providing themselves with institutional arrangements that promote democracy, stability, human rights, sustainable development and social justice. Specifically, the country must provide itself with a constitution that guarantees the just rule of law – under such a system, no one, even imperial presidents and military men with their own armies, is above the law. Hopefully, a new and fully reconstituted legal system, one obtained through a bottom-up, participatory and inclusive institutional reform process, would allow Liberians to bring anyone who violates the law, including even those who are politically well connected, to justice.
Taylor was convicted despite the absence of evidence confirming that he personally committed atrocities, although he had authority over officers who did.
“The prosecution needed to call many insider witnesses, each of whom provided separate pieces to the jigsaw puzzle,” Brenda Hollis, the chief prosecutor, told the Financial Times. She referred to the “complex history of relationships that established Taylor’s influence and control over the RUF”.
Taylor is now “the first sitting or former head of state to be judged for conduct in a war that was considered — by still-emerging international standards — so treacherous as to be illegal,” The Washington Post reports:
Prosecutors allege that he used his power as president of neighboring Liberia to advise and provide resources and weapons to Sierra Leone’s rebels, whose uprising he viewed as similar to the guerrilla movement he had led in his own country.
Some critics say such courts have become an impediment to ridding the world of some unsavory leaders, who cling to power for their own protection. But international justice activists counter that the goal is to make atrocities dangerous for wartime leaders, so that they will think twice before ordering or committing them.
But the verdict is also “a glaring example of the failure of Africans to govern themselves effectively,” according to Kimenyi and Mbaku:
That the international criminal court has to be used to deal with issues that we as Africans should be able to deal with is a demonstration of our collective failure. That we have to rush to The Hague for others to solve our problems is probably the best example of abuse of our political independence. If anything, Africans must focus on building strong institutions to deal with human rights violations ourselves, else we should not claim to be independent and instead should let others define and enforce the rules.
“It took some hard politicking and pressure from the United States to prise Taylor away from Nigeria where he took refuge after leaving Liberia in 2003, believing that he was protected by an amnesty agreement,” says Jon Silverman, a British professor of criminal justice:
It is a tactic which can probably be tried only once and the chances of persuading Robert Mugabe to relinquish power in Zimbabwe on the promise of a prosecution-free exile are slim to non-existent. Mr Mugabe is said to have watched the Taylor case with interest.
One of the ironies of the Taylor trial is that, while it is of great significance for Africa, it has also highlighted concerns that, for international tribunals, the continent has been a convenient laboratory to test concepts which have not been applied to other parts of the world.
“Powerful leaders like Charles Taylor have for too long lived comfortably above the law,” said Elise Keppler, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch:
Taylor is the only former head of state since Nuremberg to be convicted for war crimes or crimes against humanity by an international or hybrid international-national tribunal. Slobodan Milosevic, president of the former Yugoslavia, was tried by an international tribunal, but he died before a judgment was issued. Karl Doenitz, who was a German naval commander and president of Germany for approximately one week at the end of World War II, was convicted by the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg. The judgment in Taylor’s case comes five months after Laurent Gbagbo, the former Côte d’Ivoire president, appeared before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity during Côte d’Ivoire’s 2011 political and military crisis. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan is also subject to an ICC arrest warrant, but he remains a fugitive from justice. The Special Court found Taylor guilty of the war crimes of terrorizing civilians, murder, outrages on personal dignity, cruel treatment, looting, and recruiting and using child soldiers; and the crimes against humanity of murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilating and beating, and enslavement.
“Not since Nuremberg has an international or hybrid war crimes court issued a judgment against a current or former head of state,” Keppler said. “This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims of Taylor’s brutal crimes, and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.” The verdict “shows that future despots have nowhere left to hide,” writes Malloch-Brown:
PermalinkAs Kofi Annan’s number two at the UN, I recall a long few days painstakingly monitoring with lawyers the procedures for the handover of the exiled Charles Taylor by his Nigerian hosts-turned-captors…..
Now the outcome of this special court, the verdicts of the International Criminal Court and the Balkan trials of Slobodan Milosevic and fellow military and political leaders, Cambodia’s internationally supported prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders and others tell a very different story of gathering international judicial activism. Leaders usually cannot get away with mass crimes against citizens anymore. Even if their own judicial and institutional systems are too weak to hold them to account, there is now a higher international authority that will.
This can, as it has in Sierra Leone and Liberia, offer a redemptive healing for traumatised societies where child soldiers incited by Mr Taylor had murdered and mutilated on a massive scale as he sought to control neighbouring Sierra Leone’s diamonds. But it’s more powerful use still is as a deterrent to other murderous leaders, such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who are still used to getting away with it. Here the impact is more mixed.
So the threat of justice may make old leaders hang on. Where its deterrent value is much higher is with new leaders who as they embark on governing their countries recognise a new accountability.