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Foreign Policy In Focus OtherWords » Article / Op-Ed

The Strange Case of Charles Taylor

April 30, 2012 ·

This long-awaited verdict against the former Liberian strongman brings some measure of justice to a region ripped apart by brutality, greed, and proxy wars.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was found guilty of 11 charges by a court in the Netherlands, is a man of many firsts. He's the first head of state to have escaped from a medium-security prison in the United States. He was the first sitting head of state to face charges of international crimes against humanity since the Nuremberg trials. Now, he's the first head of state since World War II to have been convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal.

Taylor was accused of outrages ranging from murder, rape, and sexual violence to the recruitment and use of child soldiers in a long and bloody war in Liberia’s neighbor Sierra Leone. The International Criminal Court, established a decade ago, lacks jurisdiction over crimes committed before its formation. Taylor was tried by the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which will sentence him on May 30.

Taylor’s history is a reminder that proxy wars can be deadly dominoes. Embroiled in Cold War politics, Taylor and his forces were trained, armed, and financed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi as an alternative to Samuel Doe, a corrupt U.S.-backed dictator.

Liberians celebrate the conviction of Charles Taylor in Monrovia. (Travis Lupic / Flickr)

While in Libya, Taylor trained with Sierra Leonean rebel leader Foday Sankoh, head of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In 1989, Taylor and Sankoh marched forth from Libya to unleash terror in their region. The following year, Doe was assassinated by one of Taylor's former commanders.

Taylor then joined his patron Gaddafi in backing Sankoh's push for control over diamond-rich Sierra Leone. Taylor was found guilty of serving as a kingpin in a flagrant guns-for-diamonds trading scheme. Nearly 100 people testified during Taylor's trial, including supermodel Naomi Campbell. She allegedly received from him some of what she called “dirty little stones” — rough diamonds — after meeting the tyrant in 1997 at a dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela.

Taylor was a key figure in the machinery of repression between 1991 and 2002 that killed more than 50,000 Sierra Leoneans, raped and enslaved many women, and amputated the limbs of thousands of people, mostly civilians. On the Liberian side of the border, the atrocities that began in December 1989 didn't end until Taylor's ouster in 2003. About 250,000 Liberians died, sexual violence became a weapon of war, and hundreds of thousands of Liberians became refugees. But none of these war crimes were included in Taylor's trial because the Special Court for Sierra Leone didn't have the authority to prosecute them.

This long-awaited verdict brings some measure of justice to a region ripped apart by brutality, greed, and proxy geopolitical actors. It also sets a much-needed precedent for gross violators of international human rights to be held accountable. Aiding, abetting, arming, training, and financing war criminals are crimes against humanity.

With this historic verdict, the international community must turn its attention to ensuring that the global standards of justice are truly universal and not applied only in Africa. As the human family builds the institutions we need for the 21st century, including the International Criminal Court, we must make sure that the mandates of those institutions are broad and that international law is universally applied. All gross violators of human rights and humanitarian law, including those from richer nations, must be held accountable.

The strange case of Charles Taylor has rightly ended with a conviction. But aiding and abetting war criminals is always a crime — whether it's in Afghanistan or Sierra Leone.

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