Charles Taylor finally faces justice. The UN-backed Special Court in Sierra Leone stands ready to prosecute the former president of Liberia on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, stemming from his role in Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Taylor is the first African head of state to face war crimes charges in an international court. He stands accused of destabilizing West Africa, particularly Liberia and its neighbor Sierra Leone, through killings, sexual slavery, and the use of children as soldiers.
Taylor’s prosecution ends his long streak of living above the law. In the 1980s, he was the chief procurement officer in the brutal regime of Liberian dictator Samuel Doe. After seizing power with the aid of a U.S.-trained army in 1980, Doe proceeded to terrorize the people of Liberia. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration collaborated with Doe in covert activities against its enemy of that day, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
Taylor, while on a trip in the United States, was arrested for absconding with monies from the Liberian government and people. However, in a Houdini-like move, he escaped from the correctional facility in Plymouth, Mass., in 1986.
On Christmas Eve 1989, he re-emerged to launch a coup in Liberia, throwing the country into 15 years of chaos and conflict. Taylor ravaged not only the people but also the resources of the region. With help from a vast network of arms dealers, shippers, diamond syndicates and timber buyers outside of Africa, Taylor and other warlords pillaged forests and mines, often moving natural resources to Western and Asian markets in the same sealed shipping containers that brought arms.
In 2003, a complicated diplomatic deal allowed Taylor to take haven in Nigeria in exchange for allowing Liberia to transition to democracy. The deal brought the last two and a half years of relative peace, culminating in the election of Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Soon thereafter, the Bush administration urged Liberia’s newly elected government to call for Taylor’s extradition and pressured Nigeria to cooperate.
Again Taylor escaped, this time from a palatial resort in Calabar, Nigeria. But his luck ran out only two days later when Nigerian police apprehended him at the border with Cameroon. They transferred him in handcuffs first to Liberia, then to Sierra Leone, handing him over to the U.N. court.
On April 3, he told the court, “I did not, and could not, have committed the atrocities that allegedly occurred during Sierra Leone’s civil war.”
The court, after weighing the evidence, will decide his guilt or innocence.
As much as this case focuses on Taylor’s alleged crimes, there are others who also should be brought to account for the deaths of 250,000 Liberians and tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans.
Bankers that help
The arms dealers, for one, should accept some responsibility. They flooded West Africa with eight million weapons, according to the International Action Network on Small Arms. Second, Taylor’s cohorts have stolen billions of dollars of Liberian assets.
Then there are the Swiss, American and other international bankers that continue to harbor funds that sustained the Taylor war machine. Taylor and his cohorts have stashed more than $3 billion in international banks, according to estimates by U.K.-based Global Witness.
These bankers need to be held accountable for handling dirty money and for war profiteering. Tracking and returning stolen assets would deter future bankers from dealings with warlords while also helping kick-start the Liberian economy.
Seeing Taylor in handcuffs has given great hope to victims of dictators the world over. But real justice will only come when all those who fed the violence, stole the wealth or profited from the misery of the Liberian people face legal consequences for their actions.