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Charles Taylor Trial: Justice For Whom, By Whom?

The Charles Taylor judgment reveals the selective nature of international justice.
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Supporters of Charles Taylor awaiting the verdict on the streets of Monrovia. Photograph by Travis Lupick.

The Hague, The Netherlands:

Much has changed since the first day of Charles Taylor’s trial on June 4, 2007. That day, he failed to show up to court, calling the case against him a “farce”. Yesterday, he was in full view, stoic, resolute and sombre. 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 on all eleven counts of crimes against humanity, committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war from November 1996 to January 2002. Taylor, a former president of Liberia, is the first head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal. The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was mandated in 2002 to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the war that destabilised much of West Africa and stunted economic and political activity in the region. Taylor’s trial is the last of these.

Taylor trial

Sierra Leone and Liberia have both been touted as post-conflict success stories, following what some would argue has been an externally-imposed ‘one-size-fits-all’ system of state-building. But as Sierra Leone and Liberia have attempted to emerge from the ashes of civil war, the spectre 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 wrought havoc in both countries, aiding, abetting and arming rebel factions in Sierra Leone such as the Revolutionary United Front, while publicly promoting peace as the standing head of state in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The decision to convict Taylor, however, was not unanimous. After Taylor’s verdict was announced, Judge Malick Sow disagreed with the judgment openly and was rebuffed by colleagues who stormed out of the court. “I disagree with the findings and conclusions of the other judges”, he proclaimed. “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, 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, editor Tunde Zack-Williams argues that Taylor simply tipped over an already bubbling pot, saying: “it is doubtful if Taylor’s intervention would have been so successful without other underlying long-term factors including: the marginalisation 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 [leader of the Revolutionary United Front], 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.”

Regardless of the dissenting judge, Taylor was found guilty and his sentence will be announced on May 30, two weeks after the prosecution and defence have given their arguments in a hearing. He will be transferred thereafter to a British prison to serve his time. This will not be the first time Taylor will be held in a non-African prison for his crimes in Africa. Taylor walked out of a US prison in Plymouth, Massachusetts while undergoing extradition charges to Liberia in 1985. That was the beginning of Liberia’s tragic epic. By extension, it was also the beginning of Sierra Leone’s.

Justice for whom?

“Today is for the people of Sierra Leone who suffered horribly at the hands of Charles Taylor and his proxy forces”, said Brenda Hollis, chief prosecutor in Taylor’s trial. “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 is debatable, however, as to whether the verdict really represents a major victory beyond its symbolic value.

Although the verdict is certainly relevant, sending clear shockwaves across Africa, its impact on the lives of Sierra Leoneans who still suffer from the consequences of the reign of terror wreaked on them for 11 years is far more limited, as are its effects 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 transgressions can be punished.

Hollis’ rhetoric proves that she would theoretically agree with this position on an international level. More questionable, however, is her assertion that: “Today’s historic judgment reinforces the new reality that heads of state will be held to account…[and that] no person, no matter how powerful, is above the law.” After all, international justice is clearly blind to the atrocities committed by Western agents as well as non-Western countries that wield international clout or power. Russia, China and the US, for instance, never even 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.

This just goes to show that it is not enough for the likes of Charles Taylor, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony and other Africans to be called before an international tribunal. As Courtenay Griffiths, Taylor’s attorney, argues, all those who commit atrocities around the world deserve the same kind of justice, including UK former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former President of the United States George Bush for their participation in an illegitimate war in Iraq.

As radical as this view appears, Griffiths makes an important point. Until international justice can prove that it is blind to political manoeuvring and power, it will always suffer from the perception of illegitimacy. As Adam Hochschild argues: “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.”

Justice by whom?

Some have also argued that international justice systems do little to help the communities actually affected by the crimes in question and that the time and money could be better spent elsewhere. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, for example, argued that the $1 billion plus of international donor money spent on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) — established in 1994 against the wishes of the Rwandan government — could have been spent on building local justice systems in Rwanda such as the gacaca village level systems or national courts. Additionally, the ICTR’s physical detachment from Rwanda, according to Kagame, prevented it from meaningfully engaging with Rwandans.

The same argument could be made for the Taylor trial in The Hague. And dissenting opinions are not just confined to Africa. Many Bosnians, for instance, have grown increasingly sceptical towards the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and question the political neutrality of its judges. There is a growing feeling that future cases involving Bosnian victims be tried in indigenous rather than international tribunals.

Real justice

The fact that hybrid tribunals such as the ICTY and the ICTR average an annual budget of $100 million should be called into question when domestic judicial institutions in Africa and elsewhere are in serious need of strengthening. Domestic actors need to ‘own’ the process and international actors should only play a supportive role, if invited to do so.

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 artefact? It seems to me that Africa cannot continue to rely on international justice systems to protect us from each other. We must do that ourselves.

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. The ICC’s first trial, for example – that against Thomas Luganga – took a decade and cost $1 billion. Taylor’s trial was originally projected to cost $35 million. This money could be better spent. The fact that the vast majority of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans do not have access formal court systems is a tell-tale sign that we must not be doing something right, that domestic justice systems, like their international counterparts, are not blind, but rather selective.

The original version of this article was published by Pambazuka News on April 26 2012.

To listen to a podcast produced about the verdict, based on interviews conducted in the Hague, please click here.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com

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