The American: Charles Taylor’s Conviction Strengthens the Guardrails of International Justice
Something extraordinary happened last week in an international court near The Hague. Charles Taylor, a former warlord and former president of Liberia, was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in brutal violence in Sierra Leone that included the murder, rape, and mutilation of thousands of civilians. The conflicts fomented and sponsored by Taylor between 1989 and 2003 claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Ten years ago, while ambassador to the United Nations Security Council, I visited Sierra Leone. Driving down the streets of its capital, Freetown, the scars of Taylor’s atrocities were evident. Everywhere there were men and women missing legs and arms that had been viciously hacked off by machetes. On street corners, there were groups of aimless young men milling around. They had been the child soldiers recruited as young as eight, taken from their homes, and taught the skills of savage destruction. To feed their drug addiction, they were forced to kill, rape, and mutilate.
With heartbreaking honesty, Ishmael Beah tells his story in his memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Kidnapped at the age of 13 and enlisted as a soldier, Beah endured a descent into hell and survived. He describes how he became one of tens of thousands of underage, drugged-up irregulars “fighting without inhibitions and killing without compunction.” His is a powerful, gripping, and deeply disturbing story. Most of these child soldiers never regained their humanity. Now they are older, but with no skills except for a capacity to commit vicious violence. Visiting with many innocent survivors of Taylor’s reign of terror, it was obvious that memories, nightmares, and fear haunted them—and hope eluded them.
A year later, I returned to Freetown on a UN Security Council mission to West Africa. Our delegation talked to civil society leaders, was briefed by David Crane, the chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leone Special Court, and joined the peace talks in Ghana aimed at ending Liberia’s civil war. The news was very bleak. In Liberia, fighting had reached the edge of the capital, Monrovia , and it looked like more than 10,000 people would likely die when rebels crossed the bridge to engage Taylor’s forces. No one believed Taylor could prevail, but the consensus was that he would fight to the end, creating a river of blood from combatants and innocent civilians.
On our delegation’s last day in Africa, we were in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. That night, I went to a conference room and made a call to my old friend Andy Card, White House chief of staff. I told him the situation and said that in my opinion, Taylor had to leave Monrovia to avoid a further bloodbath. The situation was desperate and countless innocents’ lives rested in the balance.
A few days later, President Bush made a public statement that Charles Taylor had to leave. Behind the scenes, the U.S. government and others engaged in frantic diplomacy to arrange for Taylor’s exit. Soon the Liberian president, dressed in white from head to toe, was at the Monrovian airport making his final good-bye and boarding a plane to Nigeria. The peace deal for Liberia was quickly concluded.
Two years later, I was in Monrovia heading the International Republican Institute’s election observer mission for the first round of the presidential election there. The day before the vote, I met with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a leading candidate, in the garden of her home on the outskirts of Monrovia. I asked her what she intended to do about Charles Taylor, who was still in Nigeria and still feared throughout Liberia. She told me we needed patience. If she won, she said it would take six months to consolidate power for her new government. Then she would request that Taylor be returned to face the justice he deserved.
President Sirleaf remained true to her word. Some six months after she was sworn into office, she asked that Taylor be returned to Liberia to face the charges leveled against him by the Sierra Leone Special Court. Soon thereafter, Taylor was returned to Freetown, the first African head of state ever to face accountability for the atrocities he had unleashed.
Eventually, the proceedings were moved to a court in the Netherlands for security reasons. The trial took a long time, but in the end, justice was done. Taylor has been convicted and sentenced to serve 50 years in prison for his heinous crimes. Now 64 years old, the practical effect of his sentencing is that Charles Taylor will spend the rest of his life in jail.
This will not undo the atrocities that afflicted so many when Charles Taylor opened the gates of Hell to sustain and project his power, gain riches from blood diamonds, and create turmoil in West Africa. Nonetheless, this accountability is profoundly important.
Post-conflict societies face daunting challenges to reconcile, reconstruct, and renew. It is difficult and it takes time.
One requirement is to reclaim a sense of justice.
Truth and reconciliation commissions, like the one in Sierra Leone, record testimonials of victims and identify perpetrators so that the brutality is documented and cannot be denied, the victim’s suffering is recognized, and the perpetrators are shamed. This can contribute to healing.
But those who commit the worst crimes against humanity, the monsters that unleash the mayhem, should face a court of justice. There can be no immunity for such criminals, especially not heads of state like Charles Taylor. Holding those criminals to account provides justice, acts as a deterrent, demonstrates that the torn society is moving from a past of lawlessness and vicious violence toward a renewed society under the rule of law, and helps heal the wounds.
The Charles Taylor trial and his conviction strengthen the guardrails of international justice and accountability—values championed by the United States since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II. It reinforces the principles of accountability and the rule of law even for the highest officeholders. It cannot undo the terrible crimes committed, but it will contribute to reconciliation and renewal in Sierra Leone and throughout West Africa.