Global Policy Forum

Even Former Warlords Deserve a Fair Trial


Charles Taylor Rebuffs the ICC and the UN Special Court For Sierra Leone

By Robtel Neajai Pailey

June 14, 2007

The long awaited trial of fast-talking, charismatic warlord-turned-Liberian president Charles Ghankay Taylor was a dramatic tour de force in the complexities of international justice. Though Taylor is being tried on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law committed during Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war, the defendant himself was nowhere in sight for the first day of the trial, causing heads to turn, brows to furrow, and feathers to be ruffled. Taylor's lawyer read a letter to the court in which his client called the trial a charade, riddled with deficiencies in representation for the defence team and inadequate resources. Taylor said the court has proven itself incapable of delivering justice because of blatant infringements on his rights, as evidenced by 'the insidious presence of a camera in conference facilities in the Detention Unit, overseeing meetings between lawyer and client that are supposed to be privileged and confidential'. The camera issue persisted for several months, without any safeguards from the Special Court administration, which has shown its inefficiency in performing the basic functions of legal proceedings. The obvious result was Taylor's indignant absence: 'I choose not to be the figleaf of legitimacy for this process...', he wrote defiantly in his letter.

As I sat in the public gallery and media news room at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague on June 4, I could not help reminding myself that the events unfolding were not a melodramatic farce, but rather a foreshadowing of months to come in the complicated web of accusations and counter-attacks in the case of one of Africa's most notorious warlords. While some believe Taylor's rebuff of the court de-legitimised the prosecution's evidence against him, others, like Human Rights Watch, believe that the case sends a strong message that impunity will no longer be tolerated in Africa, or elsewhere.

Whatever your perspective, Taylor's absence from the prosecution's opening statements is symptomatic of broader issues of restorative justice, the power of representation, and an international system structured in dominance. Is Taylor a scapegoat for the international criminal (in) justice system, which still has a strong Western influence and funding channel? Who really bears the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone? What about the crimes committed in Liberia? Why was the trial relocated to the Hague, when the crimes were allegedly committed in Sierra Leone? These and many more questions need to be explored adequately for a holistic picture to be drawn.

Background to the case

The Sierra Leone civil war began in 1991, initiated by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by corporal Foday Sankoh, who exploited the country's diamonds to fund his push against government forces. Civilians were targeted in an act of irrational retribution, in which tens of millions of thousands died, rapes and mutilations were rampant, and more than 2,000,000 people were displaced because of the 11-year conflict.

The UN backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was mandated in 2002 to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the war that destabilised much of West Africa and stunted economic/political activity. Taylor's indictment materialised in 2003 before he was granted political asylum by President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. It is alleged that in exchange for diamonds, Taylor provided the RUF with much needed arms and ammunition, manpower, military training, security and a safe haven in Liberia, as well as strategic and tactical advice, enhancing the junta's ability to continue the war. The prosecution's opening statements proposed to lay out the foundation of their case, stating that witnesses and documents will eventually present damning evidence that Taylor was responsible for the development and execution of a 'common plan' that led to death and destruction in Sierra Leone. 'The plan, formulated by the Accused [Taylor] and others, was to take over political and physical control of Sierra Leone in order to exploit its abundant natural resources and to establish a friendly or subordinate government there to facilitate this exploitation', said chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp, as he gazed pointedly at an empty seat that Taylor would have inhabited.

Some believe that Taylor should have remained in West Africa to face the victims of his alleged campaign of carnage. Others, however, believe that Taylor's international network of contacts could have posed a threat to the stability of the region if his trial had remained in Sierra Leone. These concerns are legitimate, considering Taylor's Houdini antics throughout the years. He 'mysteriously' escaped from a Boston jail in the mid-1980s and ended up in military training in Libya. In 2005, he 'disappeared' from his asylum residence in Calabar, Nigeria only to be found at the Nigeria-Cameroon border, before facing arrest in late March 2005. Supported by those who fear Taylor's stronghold in the region, a swift overhaul of the trial to the Hague has proved problematic anyway, even though the Special Court for Sierra Leone requested the move. Whether on West African soil or within European jurisdiction, this case is complicated and sensitive.

Leading to the trial: A complex web of manoeuvres and counter-maneouvres

The capture of Taylor ricocheted a message across Africa that impunity will no longer be tolerated. After nearly two years of asylum in Nigeria, Taylor - handcuffed and scowling - was transported by UN military police to Sierra Leone at the end of March 2005. He appeared at the UN Special Court for the first time on April 3 to face charges for supporting Sierra Leone's civil war. As I watched Taylor on screen after his capture at the Nigeria-Cameroon border, I could not help noticing that the warmonger looked visibly pissed, like he had been duped by a humiliating practical joke gone awry.

Except no one was there to say 'Just kidding, Chucky!' All of his playmates had disappeared, leaving the indicted prisoner in UN custody alone and crestfallen. Flashback to the summer of 2003, and a different vignette materialises altogether. Taylor stood draped all in white like a king on the tarmac of Liberia's Roberts International Airport, waving and promising to return someday 'by God's grace'. He was headed for political asylum in Calabar, Nigeria after being forced into exile by international condemnation and rebel factions campaigning for his departure.

The fact that Taylor briefly landed on Liberian soil three years later only to be transported to a UN military jet for an oh-so-eventful journey to Sierra Leone, and then the Netherlands to face war crimes charges, is one of the most twisted ironies of our time. In fact, the past two decades of Taylor's life would be an intriguing epic. In a recent discussion with my cousin Edward Dillon, we managed to concoct a skeletal memoir filled with twists and turns that could land Taylor on somebody's bestseller list. We figured that such a book would more importantly hold the key to his misadventures. It would serve as an exposé of sorts, explaining the extent of his ties to some of the big wigs of African politics and non-Africans alike. Taylor has been connected to Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi, Burkina Faso's Blaise Campaore, Cote d'Ivoire's late president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, former Ghanaian head-of-state Jerry Rawlings, and even US evangelist Pat Robertson, who signed a deal to mine an area in southeastern Liberia in exchange for Taylor's 10 per cent share in the company. Taylor was armed with charisma, a West African entourage of cohorts and international connections to boot.

The indictments of Taylor's West African networks were many. Sankoh died in prison from a heart attack and failing health while he was awaiting trial. Johnny Paul Koroma, who wielded control of the Sierra Leoneon Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) that overthrew president Tejan Kabbah in a coup in 1997, is still at large. Notorious RUF field commander Sam Bockarie, who was killed in Liberia allegedly by Taylor's command for fear of reprisal, was also indicted. Samuel Hinga Norman, former Sierra Leone Minister of Interior and head of the Civil Defence Force, was months away from a verdict, when he mysteriously died in prison. Though Kabbah eventually testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone, some argue that he was equally complicit in committing atrocities as Norman. Why was he not indicted? Similarly, Gaddafi of Libya has ingratiated himself into the favour of the US once again. Like most African leaders whose records are dubious in activist circles, he continues to receive the golden shield of impunity. Why was he not indicted for participating in the 'common plan'? It seems as if Taylor is the last man standing, and must be made an example of. But was he the most culpable? Enquiring minds want to know.

What about Liberia?

An ironic turn of events proves that it was the international criminal (in)justice system that enabled Taylor to commit crimes in both Liberia and Sierra Leone in the first place. Hurling a surprise critique at the UN for its mismanagement of the Taylor debacle early on, Liberian attorney Philip A. Banks said that 'if not for the UN, Mr. Taylor would have seen the jailhouse in 1992' for orchestrating the notorious 'Carter Camp Massacre' in which children and defenceless bystanders were killed in Liberia. Personally heading the investigation, Banks reported his findings to the UN in the early 1990s, after which the international body ruled that Taylor was not responsible. 'Under our law [Liberian law], Taylor would have been tried and brought to justice' long before he became president of Liberia in 1997, said Banks, who served as a lead drafter of the current Liberian constitution.

A conflict resolution arbiter during Liberia's conflicts from 1990-1996, Banks censured the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone for its limited mandate. 'The authority granted to the court is circumscribed only to the crimes in Sierra Leone', he said in April 2006 at a press conference in Washington DC. According to Banks, the crimes that Taylor committed during his rebel war in Liberia from 1989-1996 were more extensively grotesque. 'Liberia is not getting out of the international intervention what it deserves', said Banks. He added that there needs to be a tribunal set up for Liberia to prosecute Taylor and his cronies, many of whom hold positions in the current Liberian government headed by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Activists argue that Taylor's case is part and parcel of Liberia's future post-conflict reconstruction development, especially if his accumulated stolen wealth - estimated at over US$2.5 billion - is returned to the country's treasury.

More than meets the eye

Most coverage of the Taylor trial is devoid of critical engagement with the complex questions that bedevil the Special Court for Sierra Leone in particular, and the international criminal justice system, in general. Are truth and reconciliation commissions a Western conception of restorative justice? What about the gachacha courts in Rwanda, which serve as local mechanisms for prosecuting crimes? Just as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, another UN-backed court system, is riddled with deficiencies, so too is the Special Court for Sierra Leone illegitimate in the eyes of many because it does not spring from the bowels of Africans themselves. Instead, it serves as a band-aid imprint of appeasement from the West, which is just as complicit in Africa's civil wars as the warlords who have been indicted, Taylor included. After all, the same arms that were used to destabilise both Liberia and Sierra Leone can be traced to international networks in the US, Russia, and elsewhere.

Taylor's fall from grace is reminiscent of a pantheon of notorious strongmen who have had to face the international criminal (in)justice system, among whom have been Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. What these three men have in common is one self-perpetuating node: an imprint of Western metaphysical guilt and disapproval. Once an enemy of the West, always an enemy of its court superstructure. Yes, Taylor's trial serves as a precedent in its own right in Africa. But it should not be manipulated to serve the needs of legitimising an internationally funded and controlled criminal court thousands of miles away from the continent of Africa itself. Even African warlords-turned-presidents-turned-defendants deserve a fair trial.

More Information on International Justice
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More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone
More Information on Sierra Leone
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