Selective justice

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Selective justice

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Charles Taylor deserves to be behind bars, but his trial is no shining example of international justice. Above: Taylor supporters await the verdict © tlupic

The recent conviction of former Liberian president and notorious warlord Charles Taylor by the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) at the Hague has been widely welcomed. Even his own defense lawyer, British barrister Courtenay Griffiths, agreed that his client was guilty of at least some war crimes. Human rights groups and victims’ representatives from Sierra Leone have hailed the judgment as a challenge to impunity and an important precedent in the evolution of 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.

Taylor was convicted on the basis of his role in aiding and abetting Sierra Leone’s rebel groups in their commission of atrocities, rather than the more serious charge of which he was accused: direct involvement with these groups in a joint criminal enterprise. For these crimes, Taylor will serve a 50 year sentence. This is the right judgment, reflecting the true extent of his relationship with the rebels—supplying them with arms in exchange for diamonds, for example, and helping them to plan horrific attacks such as that on Freetown in January 1999, dubbed “Operation No Living Thing.” But as Griffiths pointed out following the trial, if this is the standard sentence for aiding and abetting, US leaders should have been tried years ago for supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, rebels in Afghanistan or the military in El Salvador.

The victory for justice that the conviction represents has been marred by flaws in the legal process. Perhaps the most serious of these is its selectivity—Taylor was singled out from other sub-regional leaders equally involved in sponsoring conflict in neighbouring countries.  All of the rebel groups operating in the sub-regional conflicts benefitted from varying levels of external support. Added to this is the failure to prosecute Taylor or others for their role in the Liberian conflict itself, although some Sierra Leonean rebel leaders have been dealt with by the SCSL.

This selectivity has led many to question the court’s integrity, with supporters of Taylor in particular repeatedly complaining about the inability of the international justice system to address the war crimes of powerful Western leaders, and of the apparent bias against Africans who form the majority of those indicted so far by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While this may be an exaggeration, with war criminals from the Balkan states also subject to international justice (Ratko Mladic’s trial is set to resume on 25th June), the selective nature of the judgment against Taylor in relation to the sub-regional conflicts contradicts the Court’s claim to universality.

The trial itself has also suffered from a series of weaknesses which undermine the impact of Taylor’s judgment. The prosecution was only able to produce limited concrete evidence of Taylor’s relationship with the rebel groups in Sierra Leone, with much of its case relying instead on hearsay from witnesses who in some cases had allegedly received financial support from the prosecution to fund their appearance at the court. Contentions by the defense team that witness testimonies were tainted, and the alleged use of threats and intimidation to ensure the appearance of key individuals on the witness stand, were dismissed by the court.

The evidence presented was seen as so inconclusive by the alternate judge in the case, Justice Sow, that he flouted the usual procedures in order to state publicly his view that the case against Taylor had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Justice Sow, who is known in his native Senegal for his integrity and courage, has since been suspended from the case and referred to a plenary panel of the court for his misconduct. The fact that he was prepared to risk censure in this way suggests how strongly he must have felt about the objections he raised.

Justice Sow also criticised the procedures followed during the trial and expressed concern that these flaws meant that the process would serve to hinder the cause of international justice. Questions also arise about the extent to which the cause of peace will be served by this conviction. While it does contribute to the gradual evolution of the international criminal justice system, the increased possibility of facing justice may also deter other war criminals from opting for peace. This appears to be the case with Joseph Kony of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who withdrew from peace negotiations and disappeared into the bush following his indictment by the ICC. Justice and peace are unfortunately not always complementary processes.

The impact of Taylor’s conviction on the ongoing peace process in Liberia is also open to debate. The focus of the international judicial process on his role in Sierra Leone has contributed to the failure to address the war crimes committed during the protracted conflict in Liberia itself, whether by Taylor or others. While this failure reflects national as well as international political dynamics, many feel that the continued absence of retributive justice may undermine the country’s still fragile post-conflict transition.

Many people, including this author, are still of course very happy that Taylor will be locked up, whatever the flaws in the legal process, as there is no doubt that he played a central role in the prolonged and devastating conflicts in his sub-region. But it remains to be seen whether the selective justice applied in this case will serve the causes of justice or peace more broadly, in Liberia or beyond.




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Philippa Atkinson

Philippa Atkinson has recently completed a PhD on the history of the Liberian conflict. She has taught on conflict and globalization at the London School of Economics, and is currently working as a consultant and researcher in Singapore. 

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