War crimes conviction controversy in Africa

Should money used on former Liberian president's war crimes trial have been used for victims?

Charles Taylor in the Hague 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Peter Dejong/Pool)
Charles Taylor in the Hague 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Peter Dejong/Pool)
After a trial costing more than $50 million, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was convicted this week of aiding and abetting war crimes in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone.  Not since the Nuremburg trials in 1946 has such a high-ranking official been successfully convicted of war crimes.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 30, and Taylor will likely serve out his sentence in Great Britain, the country responsible for toppling his murderous regime in 2003.
The charges stem from Taylor’s support for the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel army in Sierra Leone that carried on a series of bloody atrocities.  During a decade-long civil war, the RUF were involved a horrific campaign of rape and torture, as well as the widespread recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Young boys were turned into drugged and numbed killers.  Young girls were kidnapped and used as sex slaves.  By one account, over 1,000 children had “RUF” carved into their backs in order to stop them from escaping.  Many of the RUF’s victims still bear the scars of their ruthless violence.  As part of a campaign of amputations, innocent people would have their arms cut off if they offered any resistance to the RUF.
During Taylor’s six years in power in Liberia, he ruled his own country with intimidation and fear.
One of the unofficial slogans popular during his 1997 presidential campaign was “he killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I’ll vote for him anyway.” However, as part of stepping down from power, immunities to prosecution in Liberia were granted to him.  As a result, the focus of the war crimes tribunal was limited solely to his activities in Sierra Leone, not in Liberia itself.
What motivated Taylor to become involved in his neighbor’s civil war?  Blood diamonds.
In exchange for laundering these valuable, uncut precious stones, Taylor provided weapons, bases, training and other support for the RUF.  Celebrations broke out across Sierra Leone when news of Taylor’s conviction was announced.  Unfortunately, Taylor’s vast fortune, estimated to exceed $400 million, seems to have disappeared.
An international search, which only began in earnest in 2007, appears to have come up emptied handed.  In the three years between his resignation as president and his arrest in Nigeria for war crimes, friends and allies of Taylor successfully laundered his plundered money.  As a result, his victims cannot look forward to receiving any meaningful compensation for their suffering and losses.
The consequence of Taylor’s crimes will linger in Sierra Leone for years to come.  Many of the former child soldiers remain ostracized, despite the RUF forcing them to fight against their will.  As a result, in the decade that has followed the end of the civil war, unemployment and stigmatization remain significant problems for these young men.
Would the $50 million have been better spent within Sierra Leone to address the needs of survivors, rather than obtaining the conviction of a single man?  As the pursuit for the lost Taylor fortune continues, this may prove the most vexing question.
Taylor’s defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, promptly criticized the court’s conviction as “neocolonialism,” since to date the International Criminal Court at The Hague has only arrested Africans.  Early indications are that Taylor will appeal the conviction, a process which might last a year or more.
Meanwhile, Africa remains a continent wrestling with violence and bloodshed.
In the days since Taylor’s conviction, atrocities have continued across the continent.  In Sudan and South Sudan, the recently bifurcated Sudanese people appear ready to resume an all-out war after six years of peace.  In Nigeria, two dozen people were killed at Christian worship services by gunman thought to be affiliated with the militant Islamist Boko Haram group.  A similar attack also took place at a church in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
Presidents and senior governmental officials who engage in criminal activities should be held accountable for their actions.  However, international justice exists only in a selective and tentative form.
Despite the Taylor precedent, few are campaigning for charges to be brought against the presidents of Uganda and Rwanada – Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame, respectively – for their very similar activities in their neighbor state, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the case of Sierra Leone, Taylor ended up on trial for war crimes as a direct result of the decision by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to send 1,500 troops to defeat the RUF at the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown.  Without this intervention, it is unclear how long the bloodletting in Sierra Leone would have continued.
Does the showcase value of a possible war crimes conviction outweigh other important goals that could be obtained without such theatrics, such as being able to quietly, but effectively, negotiate a tyrant’s exit?
Perhaps the worst lesson that can be drawn from the Taylor conviction is that similar-situated despots in the future will be more motivated to cling to power and go out fighting, rather than risk succumbing to a “victor’s justice” that gets handed down by the side still holding their guns at the end of a war.
In the case of Charles Taylor, it seems that despite the much-heralded conviction, his victims have not received anything close to the justice that they deserve.