Charles Taylor verdict’s wider significance

Victims of the former Liberian leader’s war crimes will surely argue that the world is a slightly better place, now that he has faced justice.

There was a strange contrast between the setting, a quiet courtroom in an orderly town in the Netherlands, and the terrible events that the judge was describing.

He spoke of young girls forced into sexual slavery and young boys made to kill, of the forcible carving of initials onto children’s flesh, and mass rape and amputations.

He was talking about events in distant West Africa, in Sierra Leone’s civil war, more than a decade ago.

The defendant, Charles Taylor, listened intently for more than two hours, his chin in his hand.

At the end, when he was pronounced guilty on all counts of having “aided and abetted” Sierra Leone’s rebel RUF, Mr Taylor blinked, and looked around the room.

For one moment, he appeared confused.

We were here, on a cold spring day in the Hague, because Mr Taylor, a former warlord and president of Liberia, was judged too dangerous a man to put on trial in West Africa.

Historic verdict

I have my own memories of the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and they will always stay with me.

But they are as nothing in comparison with the traumas experienced by the thousands of innocent civilians who were terrorised by Mr Taylor’s forces and allied militias [although many of the other ragtag armies in that chaotic conflict were just as cruel] and who are now bravely putting their lives together again.

The verdict is historic.

Mr Taylor becomes the first former head of state to be convicted by an internationally backed court [in this case the Special Court for Sierra Leone] since the second world war.

The chief prosecutor, Brenda J Hollis, told me that it was a victory for the people of Sierra Leone, for the many victims of Mr Taylor’s crimes, and more specifically for those who had shown sufficient courage to come forward as witnesses.

But, she argued, there was a wider significance to the verdict that goes far beyond West Africa.

“It shows that a head of state can be put on trial, that the trial can be fair, and that judges can be impartial and independent, regardless of the level of authority of the accused before them,” she said.

Or, as a friend of mine tweeted, “our world just got a little smaller”.

Some not happy

The trial had lasted almost five years. International justice is slow [and in this case extremely expensive] but Mr Taylor’s deeds caught up with him in the end.

In Liberia, some people were not happy.

They described the court as a Western [and specifically British-American] conspiracy.

This was the line taken by Mr Taylor’s eloquent lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, throughout the trial, and it has some resonance in Africa.

“International justice”, some argue, is nothing more than a Western plot to target Africa.

After all, the argument goes, look at the International Criminal Court.

All seven countries – Uganda, the DRC, the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya – it is investigating are in Africa, and the only person it has ever succeeded in convicting is an African [Thomas Lubango, a warlord from the Democratic Republic of Congo].

Gbagbo case

The next big case to go before the ICC involves another deposed African leader Laurent Gbagbo from Cote d’Ivoire.

Defenders of the ICC point out that three of the seven countries – Uganda, the DRC and the Central African Republic – specifically asked it to intervene in their affairs.

Many of the judges who work for the ICC are African, [and incidentally, so was one of the judges who convicted Charles Taylor].

In any case, who are the victims of atrocities that have happened in the African countries that the ICC is now investigating? They are, to state the obvious, Africans.

Most of them are poor, and powerless, and they live in countries where powerful men have rarely been called to account, until now.

So it might be more accurate to say that the ICC discriminates against African leaders, rather than Africans.

On the other hand, the realities of global power are brutal and crude.

As the UK’s Guardian newspaper argues in this editorial, international justice is highly selective.

A better place

It’s difficult to imagine that British, American, Russian or Chinese leaders could ever be paraded before an international tribunal to answer for alleged war crimes.

In fact, America, Russia and China have refused to even sign up to the ICC.

What does this tell us?

Probably that the nascent system of international justice is not yet strong enough to overcome the hypocrisy and double standards of the great powers.

That’s frustrating, although hardly surprising.

But even so, many of Charles Taylor’s victims would surely argue that the world is a slightly better place, now that he has faced justice.

Barnaby Phillips is on twitter at @BarnabyPhillips