The Taylor verdict - a fair result but a highly flawed process

Overall the conviction of Charles Taylor represents only a very partial achievement for the broader cause of transitional justice in Liberia and beyond, with the selective nature of the process its critical flaw

Philippa Atkinson
6 June 2012

The recent verdict and sentencing in the long-running trial for war crimes of former president and notorious warlord Charles Taylor by the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone has sparked a flurry of news reports, comment and internet chatter, but rather less informed analysis. This article aims to assess the verdict and offer a measured appraisal of the issues of concern in an attempt to balance the overly emotional opinions on offer from both Taylor’s supporters and detractors.

My own considered view as a longtime observer of the country and student of its history is that notwithstanding the many serious flaws of the process by which Taylor has been judged, the verdict delivered by the court is the right one, reflecting the true extent of his role in the conflict in Sierra Leone and of his relationship with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). As the judges found, Taylor did aid and abet these two groups in their efforts to gain and retain power and in the associated commission of atrocities against the civilian populations, providing ‘sustained and significant’ support by supplying them with arms and ammunition in exchange for diamonds and helping to plan specific attacks including the horrific assault on Freetown in January 1999. He also served as a mentor figure to their leaders, particularly Sam Bokarie aka Mosquito, with whom he maintained close radio contact and whom he hosted in Monrovia.

However, and crucially, the judges also concluded that while Taylor’s support was important to the rebel forces, it was not ultimately an instrumental factor in the conflict, as Taylor did not command or direct its course, nor was he involved in the initial conceptualizing of the incursion in Libya in the late 1980s. As pointed out by commentators on the Sierra Leone conflict as well as by Taylor’s defense barrister Courtenay Griffiths, the excessive focus on Taylor’s role has helped to obscure analysis of the internal historical dynamics which have of course been the major determining factors shaping the country’s conflict, a process that is captured effectively by the local expression ‘moving the body next door and hoping not to smell it’. It is important to restore these internal factors to their rightful central place in understanding the Sierra Leone conflict, including in particular the political economy of diamond extraction as well as the legacy of the country’s colonial and post-colonial history.

The sentence Taylor received from the court of 50 years may be seen as somewhat excessive in relation to this more limited sense of his culpability compared to the allegations of the prosecution of a joint criminal enterprise with the RUF, and the sentence may end up being reduced on appeal.

Misleading and unhelpful reporting

But while the ruling that Taylor did aid and abet but not command and control the neighbouring rebel groups does appear to reflect fairly well the fundamental realities of the conflict, much of the nuance of the judges’ findings has been lost in the hyperbole and half-truths that have dominated international reporting and commentary on the case, and which have served to hinder rather than enlighten understanding. The prosecutor herself has contributed to the confusion through her continued references to Taylor’s ‘proxy’ forces, a clearly untenable description given the court’s conclusion and one which does nothing to facilitate better understanding of the internal dynamics of the Sierra Leone conflict. Such inaccuracies are compounded by the incendiary language of many media reports, with the portrayal of Taylor as a ‘caged cannibal’ who presided over drug-crazed, wig-wearing child soldiers strangely at odds with the lucid and smart character who made his own case so eloquently in court.

It is not that Taylor’s westernised appearance precludes him from having committed atrocities, but rather that the media insistence on the ‘primitive’ nature of his crimes, along with the assertion that they were somehow worse or more barbaric than those committed in other wars fails to persuade. This view, echoed in Justice Lussick’s contention during sentencing that the crimes committed in Sierra Leone were among the most heinous in human history, contributes to a prejudiced sense of the ‘otherness’ of the West African conflicts which detracts from an understanding of both the wider global connections with them, through the diamonds we all buy for example, as well as of the common and universal nature of violence. While strange behaviour such as wig and costume-wearing was pretty limited and generally confined to the earlier phases of the Liberian conflict, shocking acts of cruelty are sadly characteristic of each and every conflict, whether committed by Africans, Europeans, Americans, Japanese, Arabs or anyone else. Savagery is a human quality after all. 

As misleading as what was said in many of the international media reports on the verdict, was what was left out, including any reference to the fact that the practice of amputation, which has become emblematic of the particular horrors of the Sierra Leone conflict, was in fact confined to that country, and never used in Liberia, by Taylor or his opponents. While this might have been deemed of interest given that the nub of the case was the extent of the connection between Taylor and the atrocities in Sierra Leone, none of the many media reports which included interviews with amputees in Sierra Leone as part of their coverage of the verdict saw fit to mention this fact.

A further key dynamic which has been left out of the reportage and analysis of the verdict is any reference to the complex ‘aiding and abetting’ relationships which have criss-crossed the sub-region throughout its protracted conflicts. These also might have been judged relevant given the court’s findings, and far more so than the alleged war crimes of Blair or Bush to which Taylor’s defenders instead continually refer. These relationships include the support from Sierra Leone for ULIMO, the first rebel group to oppose Taylor, and from Ecomog, the Nigeria-backed regional peace-keeping force, for all the anti-Taylor rebel groups during the first phase of the Liberian conflict; the support Taylor received throughout from Burkina Faso and periodically from Cote d’Ivoire; and the support from Guinea for the LURD operations against Taylor in the second phase of the conflict, and for the anti-Taylor group Model from Cote d’Ivoire. The initial backing of both the RUF and Taylor by Libya is a further important aiding and abetting relationship. All of the rebel groups supported in this way were committing war crimes and crimes against humanity and were publicly known to be doing so, a central aspect of the judgment against Taylor, and so presumably the governments and individuals involved bear some criminal responsibility for these atrocities in the same way that Taylor has been found to as a result of his relationship with the RUF and AFRC. 

A final significant aspect of the verdict that although reported on received little sustained attention or analysis, was the dissenting opinion expressed by the alternate judge, Justice Sow, whose view was that the prosecution had not proved their case beyond reasonable doubt. Although his opinion carries no legal weight, with his role to stand in in the event of a problem with one of the three sitting judges, his disagreement with their judgment draws attention to the weaknesses in the evidence presented by the prosecution, which many commentators also found to be insufficient and inconclusive. Justice Sow’s veiled criticism of procedural aspects of the case, as implied in his comment that the courtroom represented the only forum for him to air his doubts, was then reinforced by the court’s apparent attempt to suppress his dissenting view, with officials switching off his microphone and closing curtains in the courtroom, and the sitting judges all rising to leave during his statement. The Senegalese justice, renowned in his own country for his integrity, courage and experience, has since been suspended from the case, and referred on the basis of misconduct to a plenary panel of the court. The court’s failure to address the concerns raised by the defense team about the tainted nature of the testimony of some prosecution witnesses has served further to undermine the integrity of the process, with the judges refusing to investigate these complaints about the use by the prosecution of payments, intimidation and threats to compel witnesses to appear before the court.

Selective justice

Interestingly, only relatively obscure online commentaries on international law have really addressed these aspects of the case, with some going so far as to concur with the opinion of the alternate judge that rather than promoting the cause of international justice, the flaws in the process of the case may rather serve to undermine it. Justice Sow’s contention is very much at odds with the views of those in the mainstream human rights community however, which resoundingly welcomed the verdict for the challenge it presents to the impunity of powerful war criminals as well as the important precedents that it sets in relation to international criminal justice, with the judgments by the court on the use of child soldiers and sex slaves, and rape as a weapon of war, the first ever convictions for these newly established crimes. But it remains to be seen whether or to what extent these landmark legal precedents can or will be translated into practice and used against other perpetrators in any kind of systematic way. The highly selective nature of the justice meted out against Taylor represents its most significant and perhaps fatal weakness in the process in the eyes of many, who feel that this aspect fundamentally contradicts the claim to universality which should surely form the basis of any just process. 

Supporters of Taylor, including those active on the Open Society website which has provided daily reports and periodic assessments of the case, have long and vocally complained about the bias against African leaders they perceive in the operations of the court, and in the process of international justice more broadly, with its patent inability to address the crimes of powerful western leaders. This view has been echoed by Taylor’s barrister Courtney Griffiths in his criticism of the politicized nature of the case, as well as by Taylor himself in his claims of a US conspiracy against him. Others are more concerned about the serious inadequacies in the process of transitional justice in Liberia itself that have been laid bare by the conviction of Taylor for his role in the Sierra Leone conflict. Many people believe that Taylor should instead have been on trial for the countless crimes he committed during the protracted conflicts in his own country, a process which would have avoided the difficulties and expense of proving the nature of his connection with the Sierra Leone rebel groups. Others feel strongly that other perpetrators in Liberia should also face justice, posing the question of why Liberians do not deserve an international war crimes tribunal when the international community has funded one for Sierra Leone. 

This issue goes beyond the international level however, with the national failure to implement the findings of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established as part of the 2003 Accra peace agreement that ended the conflict, having also severely undermined the process of transitional justice in Liberia. The controversial nature of the commission’s recommendations as contained in its final report of June 2009, which included the banning from public office of a long list of individuals deemed to bear some responsibility for the conflict including President Johnson-Sirleaf herself, as well as the prosecution of a much shorter list of those deemed the most responsible, ultimately precluded their implementation by the current government, and may thus have been a strategic mistake by those commissioners who pushed for this approach. The TRC report has been more or less shelved as a result, leaving unresolved a whole range of transitional justice issues, although the president has recently revived the reconciliation aspect through her establishment of a commission headed by Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee.

But while the new commission may provide a forum for debate and go some way to fostering a greater sense of reconciliation, this may not sufficiently compensate for the continued lack of retributive justice. Some commentators including the former Chair of the TRC Jerome Verdier believe that the failure to prosecute any of those responsible for the conflict and associated atrocities will ultimately hinder the country’s ability to achieve lasting peace. Even former warlord Senator Johnson has concurred with this view, suggesting that ‘generational hatred’ could result. Others equally feel that the demons of the past, many of which were extensively aired during the TRC hearings despite the flaws of its outcome, are better laid to rest once and for all as the country moves forward in its efforts to build a brighter future. There are no clear or obvious answers to the question of whether peace can be sustainable in the absence of some meaningful form of justice, with historical experience offering only conflicting insights. The new Reconciliation Commission may shed some light on how this issue is viewed by the Liberians themselves, and on the strength of local desires to seek retribution or attempt to move ahead without it, and the verdict in Taylor’s trial has also sparked greater local debate on these issues than since the publication of the TRC’s final report. 

A further important and unresolved issue is whether this landmark conviction of a former head of state will serve the interests of peace more broadly, as maintained by human rights groups which claim that the increased possibility of facing justice will cause perpetrators to think twice before committing war crimes. Taylor’s conviction may also have the opposite impact however, with perpetrators instead thinking twice about participating in peace processes given the increased risk of prosecution following any resolution, and the likes of Assad or Bashir now perhaps even more eager to cling to power. The indictment by the International Criminal Court of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony does seem to have deterred him from taking part in peace talks in this way, and may thus have inadvertently helped to perpetuate his commission of atrocities. The impact on the Liberian peace process of Taylor’s indictment, which came at a crucial point in the negotiations at Accra, is still being debated. While some feel that it increased the pressure on him to step down in the summer of 2003, others think it prolonged the fighting and accompanying death and destruction, and that it was only the achievement of a compromise that allowed Taylor to go into exile believing he would be protected from the court, that enabled the peace process to proceed. Justice and peace may thus not always be complementary goals.  

So, a victory for justice for Sierra Leoneans, at least, and the right verdict given the realities of Taylor’s role in that conflict. And an important precedent in international criminal justice, particularly in relation to the newly established war crimes of using child soldiers and sex slaves, and rape as a weapon of war. But overall the conviction of Charles Taylor represents only a very partial achievement for the broader cause of transitional justice in Liberia and beyond, with the selective nature of the process its critical and perhaps insurmountable flaw.

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