Charles Taylor and the weaknesses of International Law

One of thousands of schools destroyed in the civil war in Sierra Leone. The country is now at peace.

By Will Morton

Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, was yesterday convicted of “aiding and abetting” war crimes perpetrated by the Revolutionary United Front during the Sierra Leone civil war. This has been heralded by some as a major coup for international justice but there is a significant question being ignored:

Why is Charles Taylor, who was central to 14 years of one of the most brutal civil wars in history, only being charged with collusion in crimes committed by his associates? Why, when between 1989 and 2003 he played a central role in one of the most brutal civil wars in history, is he being tried for crimes that occurred in a neighbouring country? This is the man whose supporters during his campaign for presidency sang, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.” This is the man whose son, Charles McArther Emmanuel Taylor, is serving 97 years for Human Rights Violations he committed whilst serving as commander of his father’s Anti-Terrorist Unit.

Perhaps it is because the conviction of Charles Taylor is not in fact an attempt to enforce true justice. It is the equivalent of putting Al Capone in jail for tax evasion – it works but it is on some deep and very important way an admission of failure. It is the international community flexing what are in fact non-existent muscles.

It was only in 2003 – four years after the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy’s (LURD) rebellion and the resumption of the civil war – that an arrest warrant was issued for Taylor. That he stepped down as president two months later was not because he was afraid of getting arrested, it was because he had already lost the war. They have convicted a man who was no longer truly dangerous, who had already lost the majority of his power, in short who was weak, and they have convicted him of colluding in rather than actually committing any crimes.

You could almost call Taylor a scapegoat. That is to say, though he is guilty of many things, the only reason he is being convicted of any of them is because he is no longer a powerful man and can therefore be put on trial by the international community without fear of reprisals, reproach or unintended consequences. In short Charles Taylor is no longer significant in politics in Africa so he can be put on trial while those still involved in Liberian politics – those people who were close to him and just as guilty as him – cannot be touched.

Admittedly there are some good reasons not to touch these people. A lot of the progress in Liberia might be attributed to people doing their best to forget that the civil war ever happened. But when these people include Prince Yormie Johnson, the former Chief Training Officer of the NPFL (Taylor’s army during the First Liberian Civil War), can it really be said that the convictions being brought against Taylor are endemic of true justice? Now a Senator in Liberia, Prince Johnson broke from the NPFL to form the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia early in the war. This group, just like Taylor’s NPFL, is held responsible for countless war crimes; Senator Johnson himself can be seen on video overseeing the torture and execution of the Liberian President of the time, Samuel K. Doe. For those of you that way inclined this can easily be found on Youtube. Yet the international community does not seem inclined to bring a democratically elected Liberian Senator to justice.

Ellen Sirleaf Johnson may be a Nobel Prize winner, but the findings of her own Truth and Reconciliation Commission weren’t favourable for her.

And then there is the current president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Sirleaf. Soon after winning office she set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the aim to bring to account the main culprits of the war. The problem was that she found herself, along with Johnson, on a list of fifty individuals the commission felt should be, “barred from holding public office […] for a period of 30 years.” She was included for having financially supported Taylor early in his campaign to overthrow Doe. The advice was of course found to be against the constitution and she excused herself by saying she had not known Taylor’s true intentions at the time. Whether or not she is as culpable as others is in some ways irrelevant. What is significant here is that the war touched almost everyone in Liberia and it is doubtful that very many people have managed to come through it without being involved in some way.

The point here is that were the international community to maintain they are truly just and fair and bring Taylor to trial for the crimes he committed in Liberia, then they would have to issue warrants for many of the people still in power there, and all of these democratically elected. Firstly these warrants could never be carried out, thereby proving the complete ineffectualness of international law, and secondly if by some miracle they were it would most likely precipitate the collapse of the already delicate Liberian state.

So there is one very important and damning reason why Charles Taylor is not being charged with any of the crimes he committed in his own country:

If he were it would draw attention to the fact that international law is in fact a chimera, that these convictions of men who, though definitely guilty, have already perpetrated their crimes, are a charade to try and scare people like Mugabe into line. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – the only people who can bring such people into line are their own subjects. Anything the international community does is posturing and may be an attempt to ease its (or should I say our) guilt. The international community had fourteen years within which to stop Taylor. It failed.

None of this is to say that the conviction of Charles Taylor is a bad thing. It prevents him meddling in the politics of a delicate nation on the slow road to recovery. However the nature of that conviction raises serious questions about international law and the power of the international community to effect change within the borders of a sovereign state.


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