Taylor's Liberian victims still without justice

A UN-backed international human rights court on Thursday convicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor of war crimes in Sierra Leone. But in his native Liberia, justice has not yet been served.


When he was president of Liberia, Charles Taylor was known to be a showman, turning up in angelic white garb at prayer meetings to proclaim his innocence and point out that Jesus Christ had also been accused of being a murderer in his own time.

Now, Taylor's own judgement day has come. On Thursday, the 64-year-old former warlord became the first head of state judged guilty of war crimes by an international court since the Nuremberg Trials convicted Adolf Hitler in absentia after World War II.

Dressed in a sombre suit, Taylor listened attentively as the presiding judge of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone read out the final ruling on the outskirts of The Hague in the Netherlands.

"The accused is criminally responsible ... for aiding and abetting in the crimes in counts one to 11," said Judge Richard Lussick.

Those 11 charges include murder, acts of terrorism, rape, mutilation, conscripting child soldiers, sexual slavery and pillage during the 11-year intertwining civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The court also found the former Liberian president guilty of supporting the brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone in return for “blood diamonds” during the country’s 1991-2002 civil war, in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

But Judge Lussick added that while there was little doubt that Taylor provided material help to the RUF, the court found no evidence that Taylor was individually responsible for crimes committed in Sierra Leone or that he was part of a joint criminal enterprise.

Sitting behind his defence team in the court chamber, separated by a glass wall, Taylor appeared relaxed at the start of Thursday’s court session, waving at some people in the public gallery. But as the lengthy verdict was read, the once flamboyant Baptist preacher was visibly tense, nervously clasping his hands as he heard the guilty verdicts.

Freetown reacts to the verdict

Thousands of miles away from the Dutch courtroom, the mood on the streets of the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown was noticeably more passionate.

“Shame on you Charles Taylor. Give us your diamonds before going to prison,” read one of the posters at a viewing site set up by the court in Freetown.

Taylor is set to be sentenced on May 30.

Joshua Nichols, a news editor at independent Sierra Leonean radio station Cotton Tree News, told FRANCE 24 the verdict marked “the end of a very long, long road. I can tell you the people of Freetown welcome this verdict. People were just waiting for the court to confirm what they already knew: that Charles Taylor was guilty.”

A brutal lexicon of war

One of the most gruesome hallmarks of the RUF assault was the mutilations of limbs of civilians and the vocabulary of brutality that entered the country’s war lexicon. RUF fighters, many of them drugged child soldiers sporting costumes and blond wigs, referred to arm mutilitions from the elbow and shoulder as "short sleeves" and "long sleeves".

Responding to the verdict shortly after Judge Lussick had read out the judgment, Reed Brody, a veteran human rights expert with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said his thoughts were with the victims of the RUF’s atrocities.

“I’ve spent days interviewing people whose arms have been cut off, who have witnessed some of the most heartless atrocities…I think of those people today,” said Brody. “For those people...the scars are still there. But it’s a measure of justice. It shows that the world still cares, that their lives are worth something, particularly in a region where it’s always the Big Men, the Charles Taylors, who get away with murder.”

A precedent for greater accountability?

While Taylor has been convicted for crimes in Sierra Leone, there has been little accountability for the crimes committed in his native Liberia during the civil war period.

“The political and legal obstacles to bringing perpetrators in Sierra Leone to justice are only matched by the prevailing climate of impunity in Liberia,” said Brima Abdulai Sheriff, Director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone, in an emailed statement shortly after the verdict.

In May 2005, Liberia set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), primarily to investigate crimes committed during the turbulent years between 1979 and 2003.

But according to Sheriff, the TRC's recommendation to establish a criminal tribunal to prosecute perpetrators of crimes under international law has yet to be implemented. Neither are most TRC recommendations on legal and other institutional reforms, accountability, and reparations.

“The lack of justice for the victims of the Liberian conflict is shocking,” said Sheriff. “The government of Liberia must end the reign of impunity by enacting the necessary legislation and acting on its duty to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators.”

While the 2011 Arab uprisings gave way to Egypt and Tunisia criminally prosecuting former heads of state Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, sub-Saharan Africa has a poor record of bringing its leaders to justice.

The onus has increasingly fallen on the International Criminal Court (ICC), so much that critics claim that the Hague-based court is “only after Africans”.

But while African governments and African Union officials have vociferously criticised what they call the ICC’s Africa bias, many experts and ordinary Africans describe a widespread perception of political leaders as "super beings" who are allowed to unjustly manipulate public institutions and who act beyond the jurisdiction of legal systems.

In these historic contexts, Thursday’s conviction of a former Liberian leader for crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone has certainly raised eyebrows in some sections of the international community.

But according to Brody, Taylor’s conviction could mark another important yet overlooked milestone in international justice. “It’s very interesting, because he was convicted not for crimes committed in his own country, but for crimes of a rebel group he supported in another,” said Brody. “Charles Taylor is not the only person who supported rebel groups in another country. It means that anybody who fights a proxy war has to be very careful that their proxies are not committing atrocities.”


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