World & Nation

Conviction of Liberia’s Charles Taylor seen as double-edged

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The litany of abuses was chilling: mass murder, rape, sexual slavery. Forcing children to fight. Chopping off victims’ limbs.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s conviction Thursday by an international tribunal in the Netherlands on charges of abetting such war crimes in the West African country of Sierra Leone sent a powerful message to other warlords that they will eventually face justice, human rights activists and prosecutors say.

But it also highlights what can be a wrenching tension between pursuing justice or peace first in some of the world’s most violent, chaotic corners.

Taylor’s destiny, a sentence that may well see him spending the rest of his life in prison, could encourage others to fight to the end rather than trying to negotiate an escape, as Libya’sMoammar Kadafi chose to do last year.


Taylor armed and supported militias, traded arms for “blood diamonds” in Sierra Leone, and allegedly used child soldiers in the 1989-96 Liberian civil war, which killed some 200,000 people.

The verdict, at a special U.N.-backed court, related only to his role in supporting Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone, where about 50,000 people died. In its 1991-2002 reign of terror, the RUF was notorious for hacking off people’s limbs, rape on a wide scale, abducting girls and women as sex slaves, and forcing children to fight after killing their parents and fellow villagers.

Taylor stepped down as Liberian president in 2003 in return for avoiding prosecution, and took up residence in a mansion in Nigeria. Several months earlier, he had been indicted by the special court created to try crimes committed in the Sierra Leone conflict. Under international pressure, then-Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo allowed him to be arrested as he tried to leave the country in 2006.

On Thursday, the bespectacled Taylor, 64, wore a navy suit, red tie, white shirt, gold cuff links and signet ring, jotting occasional notes as he listened with furrowed brow to Judge Richard Lussick read the verdict. The proceedings were broadcast live on television and the Internet, and watched by a rapt audience at a remote viewing venue in Freetown, Sierra Leone.


Lussick detailed how Taylor, in exchange for diamonds, facilitated huge arms shipments to the rebels and offered financial support, training and a base in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The judge described how more than 1,000 children had the letters RUF carved into their backs by the militia to prevent them from running away.

Critics have argued that by giving in to pressure from the U.S., other Western nations and human rights activists, Nigeria undermined efforts to rein in similar abuses or persuade warlords to give up power.

David M. Crane, a Syracuse University law professor who crafted the indictment against Taylor, acknowledged that there can be tension between the pursuit of peace versus justice.

“Sometimes justice has to wait until there is peace,” Crane said. “But certainly justice has to be done. At the end of the day you have to have justice, because the people who suffered and saw members of their families suffer, demand it.”


Crane, who flew to The Hague for Thursday’s verdict, described the judgment as “hugely significant,” and predicted Taylor would spend the rest of his life behind bars. He will be sentenced May 30.

The prosecution presented 94 witnesses, including testimony by actress Mia Farrow and supermodel Naomi Campbell about a 1997 dinner party after which Taylor gave Campbell rough diamonds. Taylor’s lawyers argued that the case against him was political, designed to keep Taylor out of power in Liberia.

An International Criminal Court was established a decade ago, but it has jurisdiction only over crimes allegedly committed after it was founded. U.N.-backed special courts handle cases growing out of long-running conflicts such as those in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up under an agreement between the U.N. and Sierra Leone in 2002, has convicted eight other people of war crimes, including three RUF leaders.


The African Union, which takes the lead in pressing violent leaders to step down or sort out disputed elections on the continent, is often criticized by Western rights groups for trading away prosecutions to secure peace.

It tried to negotiate a settlement of the Libyan uprising last year. The International Criminal Court indicted Kadafi, his son and his intelligence chief last year for their violent efforts to put down a NATO-backed uprising inspired by the"Arab Spring” unrest. But the African Union’s proposal went nowhere and Kadafi chose to keep fighting until he was captured and killed.

On the other hand, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir remains in power despite an international indictment for allegedly abetting militias in Darfur. He remains out of reach of the court and is engaged in a new conflict with South Sudan. He continues to rule Sudan with an implicit nod from African leaders, including those of Kenya, who failed to arrest him when he visited.

The International Criminal Court took a decade to produce its first verdict, last month, convicting Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga. Several other Africans have been indicted by the court, including Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and four powerful Kenyans accused of involvement in postelection killings in 2007 and 2008.


Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo, who unleashed supporters to burn and beat political opponents after losing elections in 2010, was extradited to The Hague last year and awaits trial in June.

Stephen Rapp, the State Department’s ambassador for global criminal justice and a former prosecutor at the Sierra Leone war crimes court, hailed the Taylor verdict as a reminder to other warlords that “if you commit crimes that shock the conscience of all humanity … in the end there is no safe haven.”

Rapp disputes the notion that rescinding amnesty for Taylor would discourage other militants from cutting deals to end their conflicts, describing immunity and exile as ineffective inducements for lasting peace. “You just license further misbehavior,” said the veteran criminal justice advocate.

Leaders such as Syrian President Bashar Assad and Sudan’s Bashir are unlikely to be influenced by Taylor’s fate to stop their brutal campaigns against opponents, Rapp said, but those around them might be more inclined to defect when they see a verdict that holds leaders accountable for being “on the wrong side of the law and on the wrong side of history.”


Dixon reported from Johannesburg and Williams from Los Angeles.