Six years after being arrested in his exile in Nigeria former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been convicted on 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) today. The court is a hybrid institution set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations and is staffed with both international and Sierra Leonean lawyers and judges. Its seat is in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, but the Taylor case was moved to the Hague for security reasons. Because the SCSL was temporarily using the premises of the International Criminal Court (ICC), news media in the past often wrongly reported that Taylor was being tried at the ICC. JiC will post an article on the legal aspects of the case and the verdict this weekend, this post will focus on the context of the Taylor case and what it means for justice in conflicts more broadly.
Charles Taylor was essentially convicted for supporting the Sierra Leonean rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) that killed tens of thousands during Sierra Leones civil war between 1991 and 2002. Charles Taylor received blood diamonds from the RUF for his support which he in turn used for buying arms used to fuel the civil war in the neighbouring state. The Taylor case is not only a historical event because it led to the first conviction of a former head of state in 66 years (the head of state of Nazi Germany became the first head of state to be convicted by an international court or tribunal at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946), it might also have repercussions for how justice will be dispensed in conflict contexts in the future.
When the SCSL started investigating Taylors crimes, Liberia had its own civil war at its hands. The Taylor case is thus an early example of international criminal investigations in ongoing conflicts. Indeed, the arrest warrant for President Taylor was made public when he was travelling to Ghana for peace talks, a move that was widely criticised at the time for complicating the peace process in Liberia. Taylor later accepted exile in Nigeria in 2003 under heavy US pressure. He lived there in a seaside villa for three years until the newly elected President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, demanded his extradition in March 2006. Taylor tried to flee the country but was stopped at the border to Cameroon with significant amounts of cash and heroin.
The Taylor case can be expected to have repercussions for justice in conflicts in two ways. First, Taylor accepted a deal to go into exile in Nigeria in exchange for impunity. That deal eventually unravelled under US pressure and finally led to Charles Taylor’s guilty verdict at an international court. It is clear that Charles Taylor’s crimes were horrendous and that he deserved to face justice for them, but the fact remains that his arrest weakens future security guarantees for leaders of conflict parties that face an international arrest warrant and want to negotiate a way out of their situation. Joseph Kony has reportedly vowed several times that he will not share the fate of Charles Taylor and there are many signs that the ICC warrants against the LRA leaders contributed to the failure of the Juba Peace Talks in 2008. You can trick a warlord into accepting a deal and arrest him later once, but will the trick work in future negotiations? In the long run the international community will not be able to keep the cake and eat it too.
Second, the guilty verdict for Charles Taylor shows that in today’s world it is no longer acceptable to use proxy forces to engage in civil wars in other countries. While this modus operandi was normal during the Cold War and even the Congo wars in the 90s, the guilty verdict for Taylor shows that you cannot play a hidden hand in a civil war without eventually being held accountable. The Government of Sudan’s (GoS) support of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) during several years is an example that comes to mind. The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC hinted in an interview a couple of years ago that the GoS might be held accountable for its support of the LRA, and the verdict against Taylor will back such threats up with credibility in the future.
Finally, the Taylor case has shown how warlords like Taylor rely on the world as an inactive bystander to profit from civil wars. Taylor was able to use the international legitimacy attached to his role as the President of Liberia to further his criminal ends. He tapped into the international trade of small arms to support his proxy in the Sierra Leonean civil war, and he was able to sell blood diamonds to maintain his rule – which would not have been possible if he had not found customers who were willing to buy them. For years Taylor had been in a very comfortable position, wooing super models with rough diamonds, with all of us as bystanders. Let’s hope the SCSL verdict is the beginning of a change for the better.
Very helpful perspective, thank you. The one point where I’d quibble is your penultimate paragraph, where you say that “the guilty verdict for Taylor shows that you cannot play a hidden hand in a civil war without eventually being held accountable.” I think we’re still really far from that place, actually. This verdict should incrementally shift the beliefs of leaders in relatively weak countries about the risk that they’ll be punished for meddling in civil wars, but it hardly guarantees that they’ll be punished, and I think it’s clear that officials in powerful countries can still expect impunity.
Thanks for your comment. You are of course right, the statement was an oversimplification. Sadly, international criminal law does still not reach the most powerful countries, in particular the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Still, the verdict shows those who decide to support armed groups as proxies that there is a very real legal basis for prosecuting them.