Charles Taylor on trial
Man of peace, man of war
From The Economist print edition
The former president of Liberia, and indicted war criminal, takes the stand
IN A small courtroom on the upper floor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) building in The Hague, closed off to the public gallery behind thick glass, Charles Ghankay Taylor has spent the past month giving testimony in his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indicted on 11 counts in 2003 by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a body that combines national and international judicial procedures, the former president of Liberia has been before the court for the past three years.
The SCSL is borrowing a courtroom from the ICC (a purely international body set up by the UN) because his trial might have been “an impediment to stability and a threat to the peace” had it been held in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown. There, eight others have already been convicted and sentenced in the SCSL’s especially constructed building for their part in the appalling civil war of 1991-2002.
It is the first time a former African head of state has been tried by an international court. So the Taylor case is a test not only for justice in Africa, but for international justice, too. If the prosecution wins, it would be the first time any former head of state had been convicted of war crimes; Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, died before the conclusion of his trial in 2006.
The SCSL has already set several legal precedents during its seven years of existence. It has convicted people for the use of child soldiers, for “forced marriages” (as distinct from rape) and for sexual slavery. For the first time, it has categorised these as crimes against humanity. But campaigners believe that if the SCSL convicts a former president for these sorts of crimes too, it would be an even bigger step towards ending impunity. “If Taylor is convicted, there will be an expectation of justice—that leaders will be held to account,” the court’s outgoing chief prosecutor, Stephen Rapp, has argued.
Despite the court’s past successes, however, the prosecution will have to work hard to win this one. For a start, Mr Taylor is being tried not for atrocities that occurred in his homeland, Liberia, but in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Furthermore, no one is alleging he personally carried out any war crimes there either, but rather that he was responsible for arming and abetting the Sierra Leonean rebels, mainly the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who committed the crimes. The prosecution thus has to prove both that Mr Taylor bears responsibility for the actions of a third party (always a difficult task), and to show that he was arming the rebels so as to terrorise the Sierra Leonean population and to gain control of the country’s diamonds.
That the RUF committed horrendous acts of cruelty amounting to crimes against humanity is not in doubt. It has not even been contested by Mr Taylor’s defence team. Several witnesses for the prosecution recounted in court last year instances of the mutilation and torture that became common across Sierra Leone.
The drugged-up fighters of the RUF were particularly notorious for amputations. As one witness recounted: “A small unit of boy soldiers brought another small boy, kicking and screaming. They put his right arm on a log, took a machete, and amputated it at the wrist. They took the left arm again and put it on the same log and sliced it off. He was still screaming and shouting. They took the left leg and put it on the same log and cut it off at the ankle. At last they took the right leg and put it on the same log and cut it off with a machete. They were swinging the boy. They threw him into a toilet pit. I was there. I saw it myself.” The rebels were finally defeated by the intervention of the British army in 2000 to save the tottering government.
Also among the 91 witnesses called were 31 “insider” witnesses, men who personally attested to Mr Taylor giving orders to RUF leaders—thus linking him to the crimes. The testimony of these witnesses will probably represent the prosecution’s best hope of getting a conviction.
However, Mr Taylor’s defence is that although he was indeed talking with the RUF’s leaders during the most brutal phase of the civil war, he was doing so in his capacity as an outside mediator. Moreover, he was acting on behalf of, and with the full knowledge of, the United Nations, the countries of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) and Western countries too, namely America and Britain, the former colonial power.
The defence, led by a British barrister, Courtenay Griffiths, has been taking the court through scores of cables and memorandums from within the UN to try to show that Mr Taylor was always acting openly and transparently in his dealings with the RUF. Indeed, Mr Taylor claims that he was encouraged to get involved in trying to resolve the civil war, often against his better judgment, precisely because he was the person with the best links to the rebels and thus the person with the most influence over them. But he denies arming or receiving diamonds from them.
In his guise as an international statesman and peace-broker (and therefore, by implication, very different from Mr Milosevic or Saddam Hussein at his trial in Baghdad), the well-spoken and worldly Mr Taylor has been offering full co-operation with the court. He bows to the judges pretty much as low as everybody else. Always a natty dresser, his standards in court never slip. With his well-tailored suits, shiny cufflinks, wise reading-glasses and elegant ties, he looks a thousand miles from a roughhouse warlord.
The trial is being followed closely in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Short summaries of the day’s proceedings are broadcast on national and local radio in both countries, with a 30-minute digest on weekends. Mr Taylor still enjoys support in his home country, where his trial remains divisive. Indeed, there are even fears that, if Mr Taylor is convicted, his loyalists could take revenge against those who brought the case to trial in the first place, including members of the present government. In Sierra Leone, by contrast, no one will mourn Mr Taylor’s incarceration.
However, there is disquiet there at the trial’s length and cost. Sierra Leone is desperately poor. Many of the RUF’s surviving victims—often without a leg or an arm—still have no jobs. Reparations have been paid out slowly, in stark contrast to the money and manpower lavished on Mr Taylor’s trial.
Yet the SCSL in Freetown, now packing up as it hears the last appeals of convicted RUF leaders, still enjoys broad support; in a poll taken two years ago over 90% of respondents agreed that the court has contributed to “building peace” after the civil war. Indeed, many Sierra Leoneans are proud of the court’s work and the precedents that it might set for other African countries. The SCSL might, they argue, be a “hybrid” model for countries still vehemently opposed to the idea of pure international justice—such as Sudan, where the president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted for war crimes by the ICC but refuses any co-operation with the court.