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Justice for Charles Taylor

Can this war-crimes court finally get it right?

How effective are war-crimes courts at demonstrating that no one, regardless of his position, is above the law? Many rights activists had hoped that – after their disappointment with the trials of Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq's Saddam Hussein – the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, under way in The Hague, could finally send the "right" deterrent message to other potentially abusive national leaders.

If this does happen (and I have some doubts), then it won't be happening anytime soon. On Monday, judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), which is trying Mr. Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, confirmed that they've postponed the trial until Aug. 20. Taylor had previously sacked one lawyer the court had assigned to him. He wanted to defend himself, just as Mr. Milosevic did. But the SCSL judges clearly feared he would imitate the time-wasting and grandstanding that Milosevic engaged in before he died. So they've assigned Taylor new lawyers and have given them several weeks to prepare. (It's still unclear whether Taylor will cooperate with them.)

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Like all criminal defendants, Taylor should be considered innocent until he is proven guilty. But there is much strong evidence against him. In 1989, he launched an armed uprising in his native Liberia and he soon emerged as a powerful and brutal participant in the civil war that then laid waste to the country. In 1996, the civil war officially ended, and, in the presidential election held in 1997, Taylor won a strong victory. Even after he became president, he continued to act like a warlord, abusing the citizenry and selling vast amounts of Liberia's natural resources for personal gain. (US evangelist Pat Robertson was one close business partner.)

Taylor also gave allegedly strong support to participants in the civil war roiling neighboring Sierra Leone. It was for those acts that the SCSL indicted him. In July 2003, President Bush started calling openly for his ouster. That August, the Nigerian president offered Taylor a safe haven there – provided he agree to stay out of Liberian politics. Taylor took up the offer. Then, in 2006, just before Mr. Bush visited Nigeria, the Nigerian authorities arrested Taylor, and the UN took him for trial at the SCSL.

The SCSL is a joint project of the UN and the Sierra Leonean government, located in Sierra Leone. However, the Sierra Leoneans feared that Taylor's trial might seriously destabilize the country's still-fragile politics. So, unlike the court's 10 other cases, this one was moved to the underutilized courtrooms of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

In 2002, when the UN was figuring out how to deal with the aftermath of the many atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's civil war, they tried to correct flaws that had become evident during the work of Africa's oldest war-crimes court, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Serious criticisms of the ICTR have been expressed – by myself and others – on five main grounds. Despite the excellent motives of ICTR's founders and officials, it has been selective in its choice of cases. It has been disconnected, both geographically and conceptually, from the primary stakeholders whom it seeks to serve, inside Rwanda. It has been very expensive, gobbling up international aid dollars. It has been largely unaccountable, either to the survivors of the Rwandan genocide or to anyone else. And it has strongly polarized Rwandan politics.

So in Sierra Leone, the UN located its new war-crimes court inside the country, and, by making it a "joint" court with the national justice system, they tried to maximize the good effects it would have on that system. Also, alongside the court, the UN established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that could – like its earlier model in South Africa – help build national reconciliation while getting the truth out about earlier atrocities. (The Sierra Leonean TRC finished its work in 2004, leaving a mixed record of achievement.)

When it moved the Taylor trial to The Hague, the SCSL replayed some of the disturbing features of the ICTR. Today, we still don't know how this trial will play out for the SCSL and for Sierra Leone's hard-pressed people.

It is good that Taylor's capacity to cause them further harm has, for now, been severely curtailed. But there are other ways that outcome can be achieved. For example, peace negotiators in northern Uganda are seeking to reintegrate their worst local warlord, Joseph Kony, back into normal society, much as Abraham Lincoln did with the US's Southern rebels after the civil war. (That approach has worked well in other places, including Mozambique and South Africa.) Also, unless the Sierra Leoneans can build a sustainably peaceful order, other warlords will emerge there in the future.

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Events in the well-funded Hague courtroom may all seem very distant from the concerns of the Sierra Leoneans, who are still reeling from the impoverishment, mass killings, and dislocations inflicted on them.

Helena Cobban is a Friend in Washington for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed here are her own.


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