Can we just step away from the euphoria for a little while? Charles Taylor has been declared ‘guilty’ for having aided and abetted murder, rape, the use of child soldiers, pillage and other offenses.
By Bram Posthumus, Dakar
This has been almost universally hailed as an important day for international justice. But I’m not so convinced. Not because I don’t want to see Taylor tried and convicted for what he did. I do, but not in this manner.
Having shot his way to power and secured an election through massive voter intimidation (‘He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him’) in 1997, Taylor unleashed a reign of terror and dreadful incompetence, from which his country will take decades to recover.
This happened in Liberia. Taylor didn't stand trial for any of that.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) has now established that he aided and abetted, and in some cases was involved in the planning, of a large number of human rights abuses in neighbouring Sierra Leone. The prosecution has spent inordinate amounts of time, effort and money to establish evidence leading to the guilty verdict. In Liberia, his (and indeed other warlords’) atrocities are a matter of public record.
But again, Taylor is not on trial for what he did to his own country.
Principally, Taylor brought disaster upon himself. His ultra violent and catastrophically inept government invited the inevitable next invasion. With the help of the neighbours, principally Guinea and at the very least the tacit approval of the USA and the UK (both of which had meanwhile adopted ‘anyone but Taylor’ policies), two rebel movements forced him out in August 2003.
Complicating matters further, a former Pentagon lawyer called David Crane managed to get himself appointed the chief prosecutor at the SCSL. He indicted Taylor for the crimes for which he has now been found guilty. There was one problem though: no neighbouring state was going to hand him over to the SCSL.
Not Ghana, which he visited as head of state. Not Nigeria, where he was given asylum. It took a clearly stage-managed ‘escape’ and ‘re-arrest’ to get him into the hands of the SCSL, conveniently just in time for former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s state visit to former US President George W. Bush.
But there are still unanswered questions. Why was the chief prosecutor in such a hurry to have Taylor indicted? Could he not have waited until the Liberians themselves had given the sign that they were ready for their man to be put on trial?
A war crimes tribunal is no doubt a controversial idea in Liberia. But Liberians have now been forever deprived of “closure.” But that was of no concern to Crane. Neither are 157 dead Guineans. In an infamous 2010 report, Crane and his colleague Alan White whitewashed Captain Moussa Dadis Camara and his junta’s role in the stadium massacre that took place in Conakry on September 28, 2009. So forgive my scepticism when this man hails the verdict as "an important day for the people of West Africa" in the Western media.
In the end, we are left with a US- and UK-funded court that neatly fitted the geo-strategic policies of these two countries. A torturous road to a guilty verdict that leaves millions of his victims out in the rain. A smug looking international community that can claim its first scalp "since Nuremberg", as the activists never tire of saying.
If former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had not died in the midst of his war crimes trial in The Hague, he would have been the first. I can still hear the assessment of a Serbian foreign ministry official ringing in my ears when he said that Milosevic’s delivery to The Hague was not so much an ethical issue as “a matter of foreign trade”.
Taylor’s case had less to do with ethics and a lot more with making sure he was kept out of the West African region. The correct objective – achieved in the wrong manner.
This is a quest for justice that’s gotten lost in a maze of foreign policy interests, personal career opportunism and the fact that the paymasters of this court would not have accepted another result.
I am not calling it a conspiracy, but it’s not a victory for international justice, either.