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.