On April 26, Liberia’s 22nd President Charles Taylor was convicted in The Hague by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone on 11 charges including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The flamboyant and theatrical US-educated Taylor was the first head of state to be indicted while in power. Now his conviction is of enormous significance in the on-going fight for global justice because for decades, powerful men were able to establish their tyrannies, set up personal fiefdoms, plunder their countries, disturb world peace and act with impunity without ever facing the consequences of their crimes.
Uganda’s buffoon tyrant Idi Amin died without being charged for the eight years of absurd repression he inflicted upon his country. The billions that Mobutu stole from his country Zaire remain untraced, while the loot and plunder of the Philippines by the Marcos has gone unpunished; they all died in happy exile without being tried for the crimes they were accused of.
Genocide monsters Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels committed suicide, while Stalin and Mao died in power. Slobodan Milosevic, the thug who ruled Yugoslavia, died during trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for crimes during the wars of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Spanish Judge Balthasar Garzón put an end to the spurious defense of sovereign immunity in the Pinochet case — but Chile’s Pinochet escaped after a dramatic arrest in London because he was pronounced medically unfit for trial.
To be sure, not all prosecutions have inspired confidence that they were organised fairly. There is criticism that trials are often set up to dispense victor’s justice; the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis were conducted by an International Military Tribunal, while the Yugoslavia and Rwanda trials did not have agreement of the countries involved. The Guantanamo Bay trials by Military Commission are themselves serious violation of human rights. And did Saddam Hussein receive a fair trial?
The criticisms stem from the view that making the evil accountable for their actions needs a principled approach. Summary killing is not justice, be it Osama bin Laden or Gaddafi. Justice requires due process, transparency, fairness and an appeal system.
In this context, the Special Court for Sierra Leone is a standard setter. It was established by the UN in 2000 at the request of the Government of Sierra Leone and its officers are independent and international. The court rejected Taylor’s self-granted amnesty and also the illegal asylum Nigeria gave him after he fled Liberia. He was tried in the Hague for committing crimes against humanity.
What is crime against humanity?
Crimes against humanity are those that shock the human conscience and diminish us as human beings. As the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court clarifies, they “constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings”. Murder, extermination, torture, rape, political, racial, or religious persecutions become crimes against humanity when carried out as a systematic practice. Charles Taylor’s crimes fit this description well.
As one of Africa’s most powerful war lords, Taylor was responsible for the deaths of 300,000 people. He triggered the First Civil War in Liberia, and its Second Civil War too. He fostered the Civil War in neighbouring Sierra Leone, and supplied arms to sustain the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) there. To overcome an arms embargo, he traded in blood diamonds — accepting diamonds from the Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for guns in deals that involved Russian arms suppliers.
He recruited over ten thousand children and schooled them in brutality. He taught them to maim and kill and eat their opponent’s flesh. He encouraged the children to rape, plunder and to amputate the limbs of civilians, unleashing an unspeakable terror on the population. The children guarded Sierra Leone’s diamond mines, and were branded by having the words RUF carved into their backs to prevent them from escaping.
Charles Taylor denied all the accusations, but the evidence was overwhelming. The limbless, the tortured and the raped gave evidence of the gruesome violence, while Naomi Campbell testified to receiving blood diamonds as a gift from Taylor.
Others too have been found guilty by the court when it sat in Sierra Leone, but the Samoa-born Judge Richard Lussick found Charles Taylor the person who should bear the greatest responsibility for the commission of the grisly crimes documented in 50,000 papers and testimonies. The nearly 950 million dollars that he amassed remain untraceable, no doubt with the connivance of others.
Taylor did not act alone. He was encouraged by Libya and Burkina Faso which ought to pay reparations to Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the poorest countries of the world. The Russian arms dealers have not been punished. In 1994 Taylor’s business collaboration with American televangelist Pat Robertson was exposed when flights operating for Operation Blessing to bring relief to genocide victims in Rwanda were revealed to have also carried diamond mining equipment! Pat Robertson ought to have been prosecuted by the State of Virginia. The Indian evangelist KA Paul acted as ‘spiritual adviser’ to Taylor and spoke on his behalf before Taylor’s arrest in Nigeria! What spiritual advice did this mass murderer receive from Paul?
Taylor is convicted and he will be sentenced in May — his trial took place in The Hague, and his incarceration would be in the UK, per international agreement.
This no doubt is a warning to tyrants everywhere, but what a tragedy for Liberia which is the only black African state never to be colonised, that its former president aided and abetted brutalities and enslavement: Liberia was created in 1822 from the resettlement of freed US slaves.