Charles Taylor faces Justice. But Justice isn’t Enough

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Liberia’s ex-president Charles Taylor now sits in the dock in The Hague, charged with 11 counts of war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone. (The International Criminal Court in The Hague has loaned the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone their facilities). The smartly-suited Taylor pleaded innocent. He has the ‘distinction’ of being the first former African state to go before an international war-crimes court. Chad’s Hisène Habré is up next, in a special court in Dakar, Senegal.

In the trial’s opening days, one witness, a churchman, described how child soldiers did their ‘work’; the ‘Small Boys Unit’ was especially brutal. But it’s not enough to provide accounts of Sierra Leone’s atrocities — these are well documented. To get a conviction a clear link has to be established between Taylor and events in Sierra Leone. Specifically, how he (allegedly) financed and guided the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). To work, the trial must be scrupulously fair.

Is all this worth it? (Yes: it sends a clear message. And a war-crimes tribunal is not expected any time soon in Liberia, so charging Taylor with crimes in Sierra Leone at least gets him into the Dock). Will it be a deterrent? (Increasingly so: worldwide, 10 ex-presidents and military dictators are facing the law on human rights charges. And for despots still in power, it might disturb their sleep). Can it provide true justice? (Only partly, many despots die safely in their bed — like Uganda’s Idi Amin. And you can’t bring back Liberia and Sierra Leone’s many dead). Will it slow down peace deals (Maybe, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda are worried that they will end up in a court like Taylor: but that’s not a good reason to press ahead with capturing and trying war criminals).

However, removing individual ‘spoilers’ is not enough. Removing one Charles Taylor leaves many potential Taylors to take the stage if conditions remain ripe. This includes the poverty that supplies their recruits. You have to recreate a working relationship between the state and the people to deliver broad-based recovery (see my paper here).

A better and more prosperous future removes the oxygen in which the Charles Taylors of this world thrive. There is now lots of action in this area. See for example TechnoServe which helps rural entrepreneurs rebuild after war. The resulting employment at least offers an alternative livelihood to the violence that youngsters otherwise get sucked into. They also need a good education; especially the small boys (and girls) who get caught up in militias through no fault of their own (a big issue in northern Uganda).

Taylor’s case is expected to last at least a year, and you can track it at the Crimes of War web site. And for the bigger picture on how to deal with these bullies read the excellent Brian Urquhart in the NYRB. Stephen Ellis provides the background to Liberia in the authoritative Africa Yearbook.

Meanwhile, if Taylor has a broadband connection from his lodgings in The Hague, he should check out this UNICEF commercial against war — featuring those friendly Smurfs (go here). He can even learn to hum the tune…

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