Overdue justice for war crimes in Africa

“Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small”; wrote the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.” The lines are a fitting epitaph to the legal saga that ended two days ago when Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, lost an appeal in The Hague against a 50-year jail sentence handed down last May for multiple counts of war crimes and “crimes against humanity.”

The successful prosecution of such an elusive figure is a long overdue triumph for international justice. Remarkably, Taylor is the first former head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials. After fleeing to Nigeria in 2003, and claiming immunity for crimes committed while he was head of state, Taylor looked likely to become another symbol of the political impossibility of obtaining justice for massive human rights violations. But seven years after he was caught crossing into Cameroon and brought to face indictments before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, justice has been served.

At his trial Taylor presented himself as “partially indigent,” so the nations underwriting the tribunal have had to cover legal expenses that reportedly exceed US$20 million. But this seems a small price to convict a leader who condoned the use of murder, rape, sexual slavery and the conscription of child soldiers to further his political ambitions. George Gelaga King, the Sierra Leonean judge presiding over the appeal, swept aside Taylor’s claims that he would “never, ever” have permitted the atrocities that took place in Sierra Leone. King said Taylor had used “brutal violence” against civilians “with the purpose of making them afraid, afraid that there would be more violence if they continued to resist.”

Liberia’s two civil wars, and related hostilities in Sierra Leone, cost at least 200,000 lives, and displaced up to 2 million refugees. According to some estimates, it also exposed nearly half of Sierra Leone’s female population to sexual violence. In addition to his lack of concern about using extreme violence, Taylor also saw nothing wrong with plundering revenues from Liberia’s diamond and timber industries to finance his army and to amass a large private fortune. Sadly, apart from the exceptional brutality of his troops, his behaviour does little to distinguish him from a long line of African strongmen who have used similar methods to sustain their political careers, often for decades.

Among other things, the Taylor ruling provides an important counterweight to the decision, this February, of appeals judges at the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to overturn the conviction of General Momcilo Perisic, previously sentenced to 27 years for failing to halt a series of human rights violations including the Srebenica massacre and rocket attacks on civilians in Zagreb. The Taylor decision establishes a clear and much-needed precedent in international law for ascribing guilt to the intellectual authors of crimes against humanity and not just to those who carry out atrocities in the field. It also validates the long and often frustrating procedures of international tribunals to inch their way forward, one precedent at a time, in the pursuit of genuinely powerful political actors.

In her prize-winning account of the painstaking efforts to create institutions that might hold nations accountable for crimes against humanity, the journalist Erna Paris points out that the Nuremberg trials “almost did not happen.” The victors of the Second World War, and France, were initially willing to tolerate widespread retribution for German atrocities, and there were fears that Stalin might simply produce a series of show trials to convict leading Nazis. But when America and Britain “thought revenge killings might not look well in the history books” they pressed for rigorous courtroom procedures that would produce strong verdicts and set useful precedents for exactly the sort of justice that has been served on Charles Taylor. As the allies set about establishing the tribunal, its future chief prosecutor, Robert H Jackson, said memorably that “to free [German] prisoners without a trial would mock the dead and make cynics of the living.”

On November 20, 1945 Jackson celebrated the creation of the Nuremberg tribunal with even greater eloquence, saying: “That four great nations flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason.” Astonishingly, it has taken nearly 70 years for the labyrinthine processes of international politics to elicit a similar tribute. Nevertheless, the successful prosecution of Charles Taylor is a small but encouraging sign that the arc of the moral universe may, after all, bend towards justice.

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