There is still a long way to go before the goal of ending impunity for crimes against humanity has been reached
The conviction of Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone was an important step in what can only be described as the faltering path of international justice. The sentence pronounced in The Hague sent strong signals to both his victims and former supporters in Freetown and Monrovia.
The court was not persuaded beyond reasonable doubt of the most serious charges. While it agreed that Taylor had “substantial influence” over the leadership of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which terrorised civilian populations with murder, rape, sexual slavery and enforced amputations, it ruled that that influence fell short of command and control. It similarly rejected counts based on a joint criminal enterprise. But in finding that Taylor knew about the campaign of terror the RUF was waging, fuelled it with arms and ammunition, and told RUF commanders to seize the diamond-producing areas so that he could continue trading gems for arms, one part of the truth of that dark period has been established.
As Human Rights Watch said, Taylor is implicated in human rights abuses throughout the region. Forces under his control have done similar things to the atrocities in Sierra Leone in his native Liberia – crimes for which the Liberian government has yet to initiate any prosecutions. The victims of those massacres, of that rape and torture, are every bit as deserving of justice as their brothers and sisters across the border. Securing a conviction, even on lesser counts, is still an essential precondition to the establishment of a functioning system of justice in post-war Sierra Leone and Liberia .
There was relief in Freetown yesterday as the verdict was read out, and with it the recognition that Taylor will never again return to plague them. And yet there is still a long way to go before one can say that the goal of ending impunity for crimes against humanity has been reached. It is still plainly nowhere in sight. Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, has appeared before the international criminal court (ICC), but Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, another recipient of an ICC arrest warrant, will not be delivered to a court over Darfur anytime soon. On the contrary, current attempts to stop a proxy war developing around the oil fields of South Sudan are predicated on him staying in power.
Like Liberia or Sierra Leone, the justice system is dysfunctional (in cases of this importance) in Russia too, but it is a safe bet that no Russian leader will ever appear before an international court of justice for war crimes committed in Chechnya. The same is true of China and Tibet, or 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. So the charge that the international courts are largely confined to Africa, sticks. If impunity is to end, jurisdiction has to be universal.
This is not to diminish the importance of what took place yesterday. The fact that international justice failed in Slobodan Milosevic’s case, who died in his cell before his four-year genocide trial could reach a verdict, does not mean that valuable lessons cannot be learned from Taylor’s trial. Taylor will go down as the most expensive defendant in history. Prising the accused from the clutches of Nigeria, where he had been granted asylum, or the decision to relocate Taylor’s special court to The Hague out of fears of the instability such a trial would create in Sierra Leone, required a degree of persistence not commonly found in conflicts elsewhere.
Justice is about the victims too. For the generation of Sierra Leoneans who, as children, had their lives ruined by the warlords Taylor helped, who lost their parents and spent months hiding in the bush, and who are now engaged in rebuilding their country, no amount of money spent on sending Taylor to prison can ever be enough.