The courtrooms of America sometimes take us by surprise. Last week, Charles ”Chuckie” Taylor, the son of the former Liberian president and notorious warlord, Charles Taylor, was sentenced in a Miami court to 97 years in prison for torture. It was the first time than an American court had applied a law passed in 1994 allowing the prosecution of citizens who commit torture overseas. (Taylor was born in the US, but then moved to Liberia to join his father.)
Is there now one law in America for those who commit torture overseas and another for those who commit it at home with the authority of government? Perhaps for not much longer. In a television interview last weekend, President-elect Barack Obama said that the attorney general would investigate whether some senior members of the Bush administration should be prosecuted for their part in torture, although he said that his belief was that ”what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future.”
Also last week he said that he had given his new appointees to top intelligence positions a clear charge to restore the US’s stance as a protector of human rights. “Under my administration the United States does not torture.” Obama should also have reminded his audience that it was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan that the US helped push for the UN to agree to a legally binding treaty against torture, and then propelled Congress rapidly to ratify it. It is this treaty that provides the legal underpinning for the prosecution of Taylor.
Still, even the Bush administration has done its bit for some aspects of international law. For years it waged war against the creation of the International Criminal Court, meant to try those charged with crimes against humanity. But in recent years the US appeared to change its position. As a number of African warlords have been seized by the ICC, the US has supported the process. Most recently it has encouraged the ICC for the first time to prosecute a head of state, the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. Bush seems to have put to one side his fears that the ICC might put the US in its sights. The statutes of the ICC make clear that it will only prosecute when…