Ever since Charles Taylor was extradited to the Hague in 2006, there have been two trials going on. The criminal inquiry into whether he is guilty of the 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to his involvement in the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. For many, including the thousands of victims in Sierra Leone, the fact of the trial was only an important precursor to establishing his obvious guilt; a fair process to add the stamp of legitimacy to the inevitable outcome. Today, as they watched Taylor be convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes on all counts, they have seen justice done.
Many people believe Taylor is innocent and his conviction an injustice. The fact that guilt for joint criminal enterprise and command responsibility of the RUF more serious charges than aiding and abetting could not be proved against Taylor, for them is only a cursory nod to his general innocence. His trial is the product of an ornate plan designed by the international community to humiliate Liberia and cement its status as a pawn at their mercy. Vox pops by the Liberian press on the streets of Monrovia report views that his trial has been “nothing but a western conspiracy” and that “there has been no tangible evidence provided” in court.
The claim that no evidence has been involved in Taylor’s trial may seem surprising. Over the nearly six years since the trial started, there have been 91 prosecution witnesses, 1,520 exhibits and more than 50,000 pages of witness testimony. Perhaps if the special court had invested in making its proceedings accessible in Liberia as it did so successfully in Sierra Leone. Liberians would have felt better informed about the trial process.
But the fact that Taylor’s fate is a divisive issue in the country is far from a surprise. Taylor may have been held to account, but Prince Johnson to pick one of many, many other former rebel leaders as an example is enjoying life as a senator. Current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf may have won the Nobel peace prize, but Taylor supporters are a huge presence in Liberia’s tiny ruling elite. The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia (Unmil) is still a crucial ingredient in maintaining peace. Moving on is a luxury that Liberia cannot yet afford.
But the Taylor trial was never about Liberia. Instead the prosecution case has been about establishing linkage with Sierra Leone’s rebels the RUF, and not just simply whether he was involved, but whether his involvement extended to aiding and abetting or the more serious legal standards of command responsibility and joint criminal enterprise.
Sierra Leoneans have benefited from an extensive outreach programme by the special court, they have been well informed about the trial, and for the victims of this now proven collaboration from hell, today’s verdict is a kind of justice. The double amputee, who asked for another of his hands to be cut off rather than see the machete taken to his son’s arm, or the woman who was made to carry a heavy bag with her children’s severed body parts inside on her head the blood trickling down know now that their courage in travelling to the Hague and giving evidence against Taylor has played its part in history.
There is no doubt that today’s verdict is historic. Taylor’s conviction goes a long way to answering decisively the lingering questions surrounding responsibility for the complex events of a decade of brutal war. The trial has been the product of no end of delicate manoeuvering from the initial attempts to persuade Nigeria’s then-president Olusegun Obasanjo to extradite Taylor, who had been granted asylum in Nigeria, then the decision to relocate Taylor’s special court trial to the Hague out of fears for instability in Sierra Leone to the blatant leniency of the trial judges, so keen to avoid any possibility of the appearance of bias that they gave Taylor a more or less free reign to talk, as he did, for seven months.
And if international criminal justice is on trial, its verdict is not yet out. The special court has been far from perfect. On the one hand it has faced endemic funding problems, unbelievable delays and serious questions about the competency of its appeals chamber. On the other, it has been accused of presiding over payments to prosecution witnesses which defence lawyers say fundamentally undermine the fairness of many special court trials.
But ironically it is the thoroughness of special court defence teams and Taylor’s most of all that added the necessary element of legitimacy to the process. Some observers felt that the quality of Taylor’s lawyers led by the formidable Courtenay Griffiths QC played a significant role in inspiring confidence in the fairness of proceedings.
And then there’s the expense. Taylor will also go down as the most expensive defendant in the history of international criminal justice, receiving $100,000 per month, which together with the move to the Hague and other costs amounts to an estimated $35 40m per year.
Griffiths, staying true to form and going beyond the call of duty to criticise the process, has helpfully described the trial as “a complete waste of time and money”, painful indeed for the international taxpayer mainly in the US who have shelled out the $250m or so his conviction has cost.
FRANCIS TAWIAH (Duisburg – Germany)