Reflections on Charles Taylor and Justice

Much has changed since I covered the first day of Charles Taylor’s trial for Pambazuka News on June 4, 2007. That day, he failed to show up to court, calling the case against him a “farce.” Today, he was in full view, stoic, resolute and somber. As I sat in the public gallery of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon building at The Hague, peering at the man portrayed as the most notorious African warlord in contemporary history, Taylor’s fate was solidified by one word: “GUILTY.”

After nearly nine years in limbo, Taylor was convicted today on all 11 counts of crimes against humanity and violation of international and Sierra Leonean law in that country’s civil war spanning November 1996 to January 2002. Taylor is the first head of state – and the first African – to be convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremburg trials of 1946. The UN backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was mandated in 2002 to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the war that destabilised much of West Africa and stunted economic/political activity. Taylor’s trial is the last one.

Sierra Leone and Liberia have both been touted as post-conflict success stories, following what some would argue is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ externally imposed system of state-building. But while Sierra Leone and Liberia have attempted to emerge from the ashes of civil war, the specter of Charles Taylor has always hung over their fates like an ominous cloud, forever linking the two neighbours beyond their peculiarly similar historical trajectories. Taylor may have wreaked havoc in both countries, but he has languished in a Hague prison for the past five years, facing the full weight of international law for only aiding and abetting rebel factions in Sierra Leone’s civil crisis, privately providing arms and ammunition to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) while publicly promoting peace as a standing head of state in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

It is clear, however, that the decision to convict him was not unanimous. After Taylor’s verdict was announced, Judge Malick Sow, an alternate judge, disagreed with the judgment openly while being rebuffed by colleagues, who stormed out of the court: “I disagree with the findings and conclusions of the other judges…the guilt of the accused from the evidence provided in this trial is not proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution.” Sow, like others before him, had argued that Taylor did not make or break the war in Sierra Leone.

In the concluding chapter of ‘When the State Fails: Studies on Intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War’, [1] Tunde Zack-Williams, editor of the book, argues that Taylor simply tipped over an already bubbling pot: “…it is doubtful if Taylor’s intervention would have been so successful without other underlying long-term factors including: the marginalization of youth, patrimonialism and bad governance, deterioration of the economy and the general crisis of peripheral capitalism in Sierra Leone. By the time Taylor decided to show ‘fraternal revolutionary solidarity’ with Sankoh, Sierra Leone was a failing state, with crumbling social and physical infrastructure, a regime that could provide neither social citizenship, nor security for its people, with an alienated youthful population and an electorate that was at its wit’s end with their tormentors” (Zack-Williams, 2012: 247).

Regardless of the dissenting judge, Taylor’s sentence will be announced on May 30, two weeks after the prosecution and defense have given their oral arguments in a hearing. He will be transferred thereafter to a British prison to serve whatever sentence he is given. Again, another non-African prison will hold Taylor for crimes committed in Africa. Lest we have selective amnesia, Taylor walked out of a Plymouth prison in Massachusetts while undergoing extradition charges to Liberia in 1985. That was the beginning of Liberia’s tragic epic. Presumably it was also the beginning of Sierra Leone’s.

Brenda Hollis, chief prosecutor in Taylor’s trial, said: “Today is for the people of Sierra Leone who suffered horribly at the hands of Charles Taylor and his proxy forces. This [guilty] judgment brings some measure of justice to the many thousands of victims who paid a terrible price for Mr. Taylor’s crimes.” It may be coincidental that Sierra Leone will be celebrating its 51st Independence Day tomorrow, April 27, but I question whether this verdict represents a major victory beyond its symbolic value. Although the verdict is certainly relevant, clearly sending shockwaves across Africa, I’m not convinced that it has far enough reach to impact the lives of Sierra Leoneans who still suffer from the consequences of the reign of terror wreaked on them for 11 years. Nor does it bring back the deceased in Liberia, where justice still remains elusive.

What Charles Taylor’s verdict signifies for me is the need to reconfigure Africa’s domestic systems of justice, so that we don’t have to rely on the West to judge when, where, and under what circumstances we can punish for transgressions that we deem unacceptable. If a mob can stealthily executive an alleged rogue for stealing a loaf of bread from a local market anywhere on the continent, then surely we can channel that kind of misappropriated anger and violence to constructively tackle the most egregious criminals who break the public trust. Surely we can ensure that wielding money and power and influence cannot cloak a common criminal from facing the full weight of the law, no matter who s/he is.

Hollis’ rhetoric proves that she would theoretically agree with this position on an international level but I question her assertion that: “Today’s historic judgment reinforces the new reality, that Heads of State will be held to account for war crimes and other crimes…This judgment affirms that with leadership comes not just power and authority, but also responsibility and accountability. No person, no matter how powerful, is above the law.”

International justice is clearly blind to the atrocities committed by Western agents as well as non-Western countries that wield international clout or power. For instance, Russia, China and the U.S. never ratified the International Criminal Court because they were concerned that their nationals could be held accountable for crimes committed in other countries. And in May 2009, Sri Lanka successfully organised a counter resolution, backed by India, Russia and a majority of Asian, African and Latin American members, when a UN resolution was passed accusing the administration of war crimes. The administration argued that “human rights must not be regarded as a new version of the white man’s burden” in Sri Lanka. This just goes to show that it’s not enough for the likes of Taylor, Bashir, Kony and other Africans to be called before an international tribunal. All those who commit atrocities around the world deserve the same kind of justice, argues Taylor’s attorney, Courtenay Griffiths, from the former Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair, to former President of the United States, George Bush, for their participation in an illegitimate war in Iraq.

As radical as this view appears, Griffiths has made an important point. Until international justice can prove that it is blind to political maneuvering and power, it will always suffer from the virus of illegitimacy. As argued by Hochschild: “No international court can ever substitute for a working national justice system. Or for a society at peace. And I suspect it will be a long time indeed before three Africans in black robes sit in judgment of the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for their endorsement of torture, or Vladimir Putin for his war in Chechnya, or Chinese officials for their actions in Tibet. But if we are serious about the idea that basic human rights belong to all people on Earth, no matter where they live–a principle enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights–then a justice system that can cross national boundaries is essential.” [2]

There has been a new, yet subdued, movement of people questioning the selective nature of international criminal justice, with Taylor’s attorney chiming the alarm bells with alacrity. According to Griffths, Taylor’s case has been politically motivated, “replicating blackness and criminality at the international level.” He is not the only one who questions the legitimacy of international justice. Paul Kagame of Rwanda argued that the over $1 billion spent in international donor money on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) – established in 1994 against the wishes of the Rwandan government, and modeled after the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – could be spent on building local justice systems in Rwanda, such as the gacaca village level systems or the Rwandan courts. He argued that the ICTR’s physical detachment from Rwanda prevented it from meaningfully engaging with the Rwandan people. The same argument could be made for the Taylor trial in The Hague. And further research shows that dissenting opinions are not just confined to the continent of Africa. Bosnians, for instance, have moved from an earlier support of the ICTY to a more recent position of skepticism that questions the political neutrality of ICTY judges, leading to the insistence that future cases involving Bosnian victims be tried in indigenous rather than international tribunals. [3]

 

The fact that hybrid tribunals such as the ICTY and the ICTR average an annual budget of US$100 million should be called into question when domestic judicial institutions in Africa and elsewhere must be strengthened. Domestic actors need to ‘own’ the process and international actors can only play a supportive role, if invited to do so. Assuming that no surviving structures of policing or justice worthy of international support undermines what may already exist in countries recovering from complex political emergencies. [4] What were the indigenous systems of justice in Africa used before the onset of colonialism? Why not return to those, borrowing what is relevant and discarding the rest as historical artifact? It seems to me that we cannot continue to rely on international justice systems to protect us from each other. We must do that ourselves.

Two days before the Taylor verdict, a press release was issued from the Government of Liberia, as a founding member of the UN, endorsing its faith in the international justice system. It is ironic that Liberia has yet to deal with its own confounding justice system, or with a set of recommendations from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that endorsed prosecutions for those who bear the greatest responsibility for Liberia’s civil war. These recommendations have yet to be implemented, with some arguing that they are unconstitutional. It is ironic that Liberia has praised an international system that asymmetrically favors selective justice. It also is ironic that Taylor’s former allies continue to wield political and economic power in Liberia.

A perfect international justice system is one that doesn’t have any trials, as former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Ocampo, once argued. But are we anywhere near making the ICC or other international justice bodies unnecessary? Durable peace in post-conflict countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia require domestic institution building of justice systems, not an expensive, internationally funded legal apparatus. In the Thomas Lubanga ICC trial alone, one man was convicted in one decade, costing the international community US$1 billion. In the case of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), under whose jurisdiction Taylor’s verdict was rendered, it was originally projected that the SCSL would cost US$35 million total. To date, lead donors such as the UK, U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, and Nigeria have helped to raise much more than that. Although the UK has funded judicial capacity in Sierra Leone considerably, clearly more needs to be done, and the investments must come from the Sierra Leone national budget. The fact that the vast majority of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans do not access formal court systems is a telltale sign that we must not be doing something right, that domestic justice systems, just as their international counterparts, are not blind, but rather selective.

 

To listen to a podcast produced about the verdict, based on interviews conducted in the Hague, visit SOAS Radio