THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Yesterday, I sat in a packed courtroom among ambassadors, attorneys, and people whose limbs were hacked off during a brutal armed conflict as the Special Court for Sierra Leone announced the verdict against Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia.
Taylor stood motionless as the judge spoke: Guilty on all 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in fueling the conflict.
The verdict is a victory not just for Sierra Leonean victims of Taylor’s vicious crimes, but for all those seeking justice for the world’s worst abuses.
Taylor’s conviction is the first of a former head of state judged in an international tribunal since Nuremberg. Although Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia was tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, he died before a judgment was issued.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone found that Taylor was among those who bear “greatest responsibility” for the murder, rape, enslavement, among other atrocities, of tens of thousands of people in the tiny neighboring West African country of Sierra Leone. The verdict offers a measure of justice for victims who suffered terribly.
In the courtroom yesterday, there was an air of expectancy as we took our seats in the court’s gallery. A Sierra Leonean activist told me with a nervous shake in his voice that his country had waited many years for this historic moment. War victims and other observers sat in rapt attention as the judges read the judgment summary, detailing the crimes committed and Taylor’s responsibility for them.
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When I was in West Africa in January, Sierra Leoneans and Liberians consistently told me that Taylor’s arrest and trial revealed the possibility for justice in West Africa. “Taylor’s trial is a strong signal to others that impunity is no longer the rule,” a human rights activist in Monrovia told me. It showed “that the law is powerful,” said a Sierra Leonean activist.
Taylor’s conviction comes just five months after Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivory Coast president, became the first former head of state to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity. These developments mark a break from the past that can promote respect for rule of law in a region that has for too long been plagued by lawlessness.
The trial and verdict show that even those in the highest positions can be held to account. For decades, so-called “big men” in Africa have been allowed to perpetrate or mete out abuses with seemingly no fear of being investigated or held accountable. Taylor himself was given safe haven in Nigeria for three years before he was ultimately surrendered to face trial.
The verdict also has significance beyond West Africa. As one Liberian civil society leader reflected: “This trial is a symbol for Africa as a whole. [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe must see it and think. The fact that Taylor is on trial, with Gbagbo after him, must make [Sudanese President Omar] al-Bashir uncomfortable.”
Still, much more remains to be done. The Special Court’s work is limited to crimes committed in Sierra Leone and impunity for crimes that were committed in Liberia’s conflict remains a major concern.
Forces under Taylor’s command while he was a rebel leader were implicated in horrific abuses against civilians in his native Liberia, including summary executions and numerous massacres, widespread and systematic rape, mutilation and torture, large-scale forced conscription, and use of child combatants. Taylor’s presidency from 1997 to 2003 was characterized by repression of dissent and harassment of the media, civil society, and the political opposition.
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Liberian victims of atrocities are every bit as deserving of justice as victims in Sierra Leone, but the Liberian government has yet to take concrete steps to investigate and prosecute the crimes. It is past time for the Liberian government to move forward with holding those responsible for the crimes in Liberia to account.
Some high-level suspects accused of committing crimes remain at liberty despite international efforts, such as Sudan’s President al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes in Darfur. Taylor’s trial and conviction is an important indicator that even when a person responsible for grave crimes cannot be brought to trial quickly, justice can be done.
As the Liberian civil society leader told me: “This trial gives courage, gives hope for justice. It has planted the idea that in future, people like al-Bashir and Mugabe could face justice.”
As I looked around the courtroom today, I felt history in the making and hope for a future increasingly intolerant of impunity. Would-be perpetrators should take note: today the world became a less hospitable place for those who commit the worst crimes.
Annie Gell is a lawyer and a Sandler Fellow with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.