May 30, 2007 | World Defense Review

Building Security by Ending Impunity: The Trial of Charles Taylor

This being a column devoted to terrorism and other security issues affecting Africa, it regrettably must devote most of its coverage to the bad news of which the continent is all too familiar: political malfeasance, economic decline, material poverty, religious fanaticism, and ethnic conflict.

So it is only right that the rarer bits of good news also receive their due attention. One of those is due to take place next Monday, June 4, 2007, in a borrowed courtroom at The Hague.

At nine o'clock that morning, Stephen J. Rapp, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa who went to serve as the Chief of Prosecutions for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, will rise in his current role as Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone to present opening arguments in the case of Prosecutor v. Charles Ghankay Taylor. Rapp's speech will focus attention on an event whose significance for Africa and the world transcends not only the rather pathetic character who will be slumped in the box reserved for the accused, but also the deadly chain of events which he unleashed.

On Christmas Eve 1989, Charles Taylor, a Liberian with a United States education (Class of 1977, Bentley College, Waltham, Massachusetts) who had gone on to receive military training in Libya after breaking out of a federal prison in Boston (where he was being held on an extradition request from the Liberian government of the time for having allegedly embezzled from the agency he had been running for it), invaded his native country's rural Nimba County with a handful of insurgents. Within the year, until they were halted by a military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Taylor and his allies had gained military control over nearly 90 percent of Liberia's national territory and had captured and killed the brutal Liberian President Samuel Doe.

The deployment by ECOWAS of a military intervention force, dubbed ECOMOG (“ECOWAS Monitoring Group”), in August 1990 prevented Taylor's outright capture of the Liberian capital of Monrovia, but the unintended result was to prolong the conflict since Taylor, denied the prize that was within his grasp, doggedly engaged the would-be peacekeepers as well as an ever-proliferating host of other armed factions for seven long years, during which the fighting engulfed all or parts of neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire, and exacted a toll estimated to be as high as 250,000 Liberians out of a pre-war population of just over three million as well as countless others in the neighboring countries, especially Sierra Leone, where, in March 1991, Taylor instigated Foday Sankoh, who had trained with him in Libya, to invade and open another front in the regional conflagration. An internationally-supervised election in 1997 led to the travesty of a frightened Liberian population electing Taylor, whose still-armed forces controlled most of national territory, to the presidency where his authoritarianism combined with declining socio-economic conditions – by 2003, for example, the average Liberian was, by most indices, worse off than he had been before the start of the civil war – led The Economist to award the country the rather dubious distinction of being “the worse place to live in 2003.” (For the chronicle of the devastation wrought by Taylor, see my two books on the subject, Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy.)

When two simultaneous uprisings supported by his longsuffering neighbors finally pushed his regime to the brink in August of that year, Taylor finally acquiesced and accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria, resigning the Liberian presidency and handing power over to his vice president who quickly made way for a United Nations-administered transition led by Ambassador Jacques-Paul Klein, a retired U.S. Air Force major general. The UN mission paved the way for elections in late 2005 which returned Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first woman to be elected head of state in Africa.

Even after Taylor had succeeding in ensconcing himself as president of his own country, he continued to meddle in the affairs of his neighbors. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the rest of the world, the UN Security Council passed in 2000 its Resolution 1315 which began the process of setting up an international tribunal, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, with the mandate of trying “those persons who bear the greatest responsibility” for “crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as crimes under relevant Sierra Leonean law committed within the territory of Sierra Leone” during the conflict in that country. By the middle of 2002, a veteran U.S. government lawyer, David M. Crane, had been appointed the Prosecutor of the Court and had opened his investigation in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Crane, whose distinguished career already included service as a Senior Inspector General at the Department of Defense, Assistant General Counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Waldemar A. Solf Professor of International Law at the United States Army Judge Advocate General's School.

By March 7, 2003, Crane had secured a seventeen-count indictment against Taylor. The indictment was sealed until June 4, 2003, when a warrant was issued for Taylor as the Liberian ruler attended peace talks convened in Accra, Ghana. Although Taylor fled the conference before he could be arrested, he also made the mistake of acknowledging the jurisdiction of the Special Court by retaining counsel to oppose the indictment by claiming he enjoyed immunity as a head of state at the time of its issuance. On May 31, 2004 – by which time Taylor was in exile – the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court issued historic unanimous ruling determining that the as a principle the sovereign equality of states does not preclude the prosecution of heads of state by properly constituted international criminal tribunal.

Taylor nonetheless remained at large, enjoying a comfortable existence in exile in Nigeria and continuing to meddle in the politics of Liberia where his wife Jewel Howard Taylor was elected a senator (she subsequently filed for divorce, in part to protect her assets from international sanctions) while his former son-in-law Edwin Melvin Snowe and his police chief Richard Saah Gbollie secured places in the House of Representatives. Taylor's obliging Nigerian host, President Olusegun Obasanjo, refused to extradite him, saying that he would only do so when requested by a democratically elected Liberian government.

When President Johnson-Sirleaf took office in January 2006, she initially was hesitant to make the request, perhaps aware of the vulnerability of her new position (Snowe was at the time Speaker of the House). However, following a February 2006 hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations of the U.S. House of Representatives at which both Professor Crane, by then returned from completing his term as prosecutor, and I testified, members of Congress, especially Representatives Edward R. Royce (R-California) and Christopher H. Smith (R-New Jersey), pressured President Johnson-Sirleaf into making the requisite request. Still Nigeria's Obasanjo demurred and, at one point, said that Taylor had “escaped.”

So, I penned an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun calling for quick action to bring Taylor to justice, emphasizing to need to pressure the Nigerian leader: “That Mr. Taylor is loose is Nigeria's fault, and it should be forced to bring him to justice.”

The piece ran on March 29, 2006, not-so-coincidentally the day that Obasanjo, then campaigning to change his country's constitution to allow himself a third term in office, was scheduled to meet with President George W. Bush. Calls were exchanged between officials in Abuja's Aso Rock presidential compound and their counterparts at the White House and, mirabile dictu, Taylor was “apprehended” and turned over to the Special Court in time for Obasanjo's photo-op in Washington.

So now Taylor will face trial on what is an amended eleven-count indictment, which charges him with crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law including acts of terrorism; murder; violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons; rape; sexual slavery; outrages upon personal dignity; violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular cruel treatment; other inhumane acts; conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities; enslavement; and pillage. Prosecutor Rapp has correctly noted: “The very fact that this man is going on trial is a victory over impunity.”

Of course, this legal process has its limitations. For one, the jurisdiction of the Special Court is carefully circumscribed to include only “the power to prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996, including those leaders who, in committing such crimes, have threatened the establishment of and implementation of the peace process in Sierra Leone.”

Hence, as Professor Crane and I pointed out in our testimony to Congress last year, Taylor is being held accountable for what he did to the people of neighboring Sierra Leone during a certain period; there needs to be a mechanism for justice for his Liberian (and other) victims.

For another, while Taylor bears considerable responsibility for the atrocities committed in the Liberian civil war, he is not the only one: unspeakable atrocities were committed by virtually every armed faction in the conflict.

To cite but one – albeit quite iconic – example, one of the current members of the Liberian senate, Prince Johnson, literally butchered President Samuel Doe at the start of the civil war and, no doubt convinced of his impunity, had the entire episode recorded in widely circulated video which virtually everyone in the country has seen at some point. Finally, as I pointed out in this column last fall, not only do Taylor's Liberian accomplices need to be brought to justice, but likewise his indispensable partner: “Even if, for obvious reasons of realpolitik, Taylor's Libyan patron cannot at the present time be tossed into the dock with him, shouldn't Mu'ammar Qadhafi at least be named – and shamed – as the principal co-conspirator in the Liberian's rampage of terror and destruction? Don't we owe that much to the millions of shattered lives in West Africa as well as to our common humanity?”

These limitations notwithstanding, this is not the time to lose perspective of the message that the Taylor trial sends. Up to 1990, with the exception of the state presidents of the apartheid regime in South Africa, no African leader had ever left office through electoral defeat and only three had retired voluntarily: Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal (1980), Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon (1982), and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (1985) – and Ahidjo, apparently underwent a change of heart and subsequently tried (unsuccessfully) to shoot his way back into office. By decade's end, virtually all sub-Saharan African states had at least tentatively opened their political systems to some form of competition – while shenanigans abound, one-party states like that run by Robert Mugabe's thug regime are now the exception rather than the rule. However, what remained virtually unchanged was the clubby notion of impunity which united the continent's “big men.”

Now an African leader not only stands trial, but his claims to immunity have been explicitly repudiated. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that security will be achieved across the continent to the extent that impunity is vanquished. The man who perhaps done more than anyone to bring about Monday's trial opening, David Crane, is certainly right on target when he commented last week to a reporter about the larger implications of the trial: “No one is above the law. The law is fair and…the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun. This will certainly send a signal and has already sent a signal to the people of Africa that their lives matter. And that no leader, regardless of who he is, has the right to take the lives of his own citizens.”

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.


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