‘Don’t Be A Dictator In The Wrong Continent At The Wrong Time’

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‘Don’t Be A Dictator In The Wrong Continent At The Wrong Time’

As Charles Taylor’s trial ends, does the real test for international justice now begin? asks Colin Waugh, author of the new book, Charles Taylor and Liberia.

DESPITE ITS CUMBERSOME WAYS AND INSTITUTIONAL origins, which lie more in expediency than precedent, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) is nevertheless an impressive forum by any standards. Housed in a building still known as the “Special Tribunal for Lebanon” in The Hague, the SCSL’s very presence on European soil can be traced to the concerns of its original African hosts rather than to a natural home in the Dutch capital, which is today also the seat of its main successor, the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In 2006, as Charles Taylor’s trial began in Freetown, the President of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, asked for the Court to be taken away from his country to protect a fragile peace which had just been achieved there. After bargaining among the Court’s main Western backers, it was decided that Taylor’s trial should be staged in the Netherlands.

Prior to that, the Court itself was only set up after a successful request by President Kabbah to the UN, and the willingness of the US, the UK and others to back it financially. Then as now, not all from the region were convinced of the merits of setting up a high-profile legal body to try a select few alleged protagonists in Sierra Leone’s decade-long conflict.

However, on 26 April 2012, early controversy and muddied origins were swept away in a devastating display of international justice, when for the first time in history an elected African head of state was legally struck down for his part in a multiplicity of war crimes, the most heinous of which were committed while he was president of the sovereign Republic of Liberia.

Shortly after 1pm, before a public gallery of some 80 people including family and supporters as well as diplomats and journalists, Charles Ghankay Taylor, the most popular and among the most brutal of elected Liberian presidents, finally succumbed to international justice, found guilty on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and against international law.

A panel of three judges, from Samoa, Uganda and Ireland unanimously found Taylor guilty of an aiding-and-abetting role in all of the crimes of which he had been charged. However, they found him not guilty of engaging in a joint criminal enterprise, which the prosecution had alleged. But his lead part in the planning of the nefarious 6 January 1999 Freetown invasion and related acts was proven beyond reasonable doubt. After the proceedings, Taylor’s lead counsel Courtenay Griffiths derided the prosecution’s failure to prove Taylor’s instigating role in most of the crimes of which his client was accused. He also characterised the Special Court itself, not for the first time, as a forum whose decisions were “dictated by certain political imperatives”.

The conviction, Griffiths added, had been obtained through the admission of “tainted and corrupted evidence, including witness payments”.

Admittedly, the fact that the Court had been set up a decade ago to try “those deemed most responsible” for the crimes committed in Sierra Leone’s civil war still strikes an ironic chord, when one considers that for the most part, Taylor was in the end only convicted as an accessory to the crimes, albeit a very powerful and ruthless one. Also spoiling the day for the prosecution was the late statement of dissent by the fourth judge on the panel, the Senegalese Justice Malick Sow. A full participant together with the other judges throughout, Sow was however the designated “alternate” at the time of the decision, and therefore a non-voting member of the panel. For Sow, however, all that had gone on in the Court was far from right and proper.

As his honourable colleagues rose to depart the courtroom, Sow made his statement, just as the shutters came down on the public gallery and the microphones went dead. According to Courtenay Griffiths, then still inside the chamber, Sow said: “I disagree with the [Court’s] finding that the standard of proof – beyond all reasonable doubt – has been adhered to,” then widened the scope of his dissent by adding that “the whole system is in grave danger of losing credibility”.

A controversial outburst perhaps, little reported and doubtless one which will be forgotten as an anecdotal curiosity in time. For Brenda Hollis, lead counsel for the prosecution, however, and for representatives of the US and UK governments, key backers of the Court, the Taylor verdict “sent a strong message” that there can be no impunity for future dictators and tyrants in Africa and elsewhere for similar crimes against civilians.

Optimistic words; if only that were truly the case. There is a message, and yes it may even be a strong one, but those whose ears are finely tuned can tell that the message more likely is: “Don’t be a dictator in the wrong continent at the wrong time” – because the mightiest powers might just set up a court to try you.

For the time being, war criminals in Latin America, Asia and the West – the former Yugoslavia excepted – seem at no risk of being brought before the ICC. The ICC is the theoretically global-remit successor body to the earlier ad-hoc courts which heard the cases against the accused involved in the Rwandan, Yugoslavian and Sierra Leonean conflicts. The butchers of East Timor, Nicaragua, and Sri Lanka among others seem safe enough for now. Even in Africa, birthplace of every single one of the ICC’s 30+ indictees to date, the ICC may be the refreshing legal brew that doesn’t quite manage to reach all the continent’s thirstiest parts. Consider the case of Sudan, whose President Al-Bashir stands wanted by the ICC but where the African Union refuses to recognise his indictment – and other powerful nations outside Africa refuse to condemn the genocide in Darfur.

Elsewhere, recourse to the ICC may be at express odds with national legislation – as in the case of Mozambique, where following the Rome Accords in 1992, which ended the country’s 15-year conflict, the national parliament granted general unconditional amnesty to perpetrators of war crimes from all parties.

On a more practical level, the ICC itself is a funds-strapped body that self-confessedly “goes after criminals where it can” rather than necessarily going after those most deserving of apprehension. But the management and delivery of international justice is no easy task, especially in such early times for this young court, idealistic in its conception and barely tested yet in legal battle. The very first conviction of an ICC accused – that of Thomas Lubanga for his use of child soldiers in the DRCongo – was secured only in March of this year.

But those from the developing world who say that the ICC is an imperfect animal crafted only to target Africans and not worth the money spent perhaps lack vision, not to mention patience. Consider the history of the World Trade Organisation – originally GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) – which was set up in 1948, some say as a body to serve the interests of the richer industrialised world by accessing bigger world export markets for its manufactured goods.

Over half a century later, in 2002 newly-empowered Brazil dared to bring the United States before the WTO for its illegal subsidy regime in cotton – and eventually won a landmark ruling forcing the superpower to level the global playing field for commerce in that commodity.

So too, supporters of the ICC might say, “Wait, we are just beginning”, and who cannot agree that true justice for the world’s oppressed against persecution by tyrants is worth the wait?  

(Charles Taylor and Liberia: Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone Star State, by Colin M. Waugh, is published by Zed Books priced £16.99)

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