Charles Taylor: The Fall Guy and Substitute Justice

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written by
Jaclyn Burger
Guest Blogger

Charles Taylor, one of West Africa’s most infamous political figures, was arrested and handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2006 to be tried for crimes committed during that country’s brutal civil war. Last month, after a trial that lasted almost five years, featured 115 witness testimonies, and cost approximately $250 million, the court found Taylor guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the conscription of child soldiers. The prosecution requested an 80-year prison sentence. Today, the former Liberian president was sentenced to 50 years, to be served in a British correctional facility. Taylor’s legal team is likely to appeal.

The guilty verdict and sentencing have elicited discrete reactions in Sierra Leone and Liberia. While a general sense of relief pervades Sierra Leone, the response there has been somewhat subdued. The common sentiment is that Taylor “brought war to Sierra Leone,” and were it not for his conflict engineering, peace would have prevailed. For many, Taylor is the main architect of the conflict in Sierra Leone. The Special Court found him guilty of aiding and abetting the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF); however, the prosecution fell short of proving that Taylor had direct command and control over the group. Conflicts in this region are notorious for their lack of clear paper trails that could link leading figures such as Taylor to specific war plans or premeditated atrocities. Informal command and control, often by word of mouth, is widespread. The vigor with which the Special Court pursued Taylor stemmed in part from frustration over the fact that the principal RUF battlefield commanders, Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie, had escaped justice. Sankoh died while awaiting trial in 2003, and Bockarie was allegedly killed in Liberia the same year. Taylor’s defense team argued that their client is nothing more than the “fall guy,” asserting that the prosecution sought “to provide the Sierra Leoneans with this external bogey man upon whom can be heaped the collective guilt of a nation for its predominantly self-inflicted wounds.”

However, the guilty verdict implicates Taylor as one of the catalysts for the conflict, as well as one of its chief planners and financiers, thus granting Sierra Leonean victims a measure of justice. Even if the lengthy and expensive trial dampened confidence in the international legal process, the final outcome—a substantial prison sentence—does provide a modicum of closure and hope for the future as the country prepares for national elections in November.

In Liberia, reactions to the Taylor trial have been more heated. For many a Liberian, conspiracy lurks behind every corner. Most Taylorites view his prosecution as nothing more than a witch-hunt; an elaborate plot by Western powers to remove him from West African politics. For them, this amounts to a betrayal: Taylor went from being an ally of the United States, to one of its most-wanted pariahs. They also see a selective application of international justice. On the streets of Monrovia, Taylor supporters will often ask why their leader is being pursued while crimes committed in the Middle East by Western powers remain uninvestigated.

Conversely, many of Taylor’s victims in Liberia feel a sense of indignation. Why should Sierra Leoneans be granted justice while impunity reigns in Liberia? Taylor has not been held accountable for crimes committed in his own country, and many of the main perpetrators and conflict engineers in Liberia enjoy not only freedom, but also the pleasures and privileges that accompany influential positions in various government ministries, the legislature, and local politics.

Many other Liberians are eager to forget their past, or are of the opinion that everyone bears a degree of responsibility, and that it is thus unfair to pursue only Taylor. They may be inclined to agree with Taylorites who feel that he should enjoy the same degree of freedom as other perpetrators in the name of reconciliation. The common sentiment is that Taylor is conveniently the “fall guy”—the finger of blame is pointed solely at him for a gamut of atrocities committed by various fighting factions throughout the country.

Addressing the culture of impunity was a priority for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which recommended that many current politicians, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, be banned from public office for 30 years and that a tribunal be established to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during the Liberian civil war. However, because the political will of the day is determined by some of the very people targeted by the TRC, implementation of the panel’s recommendations and the pursuit of justice remain low priorities.

The international community has similarly shied away from openly and vigorously pursuing a justice agenda for Liberia. There is perhaps a sense of “justice fatigue” with the broader region. Côte d’Ivoire’s former president Laurent Gbagbo has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), recent events in Guinea are under ICC investigation, and Taylor has been put behind bars by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which some view as a form of substitute justice for Liberia. There is also a hesitancy to fund another lengthy and costly hybrid tribunal. While the ICC provides a convenient catch-all mechanism for atrocities committed after its entry into force in 2002, unfortunately the Liberian civil war does not fall into this timeframe, meaning a special justice mechanism would have to be created, as was done for Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.

As with most transitional justice mechanisms, the Liberian TRC faced its fair share of criticism and controversy. However, that does not invalidate the importance and relevance of the process or its recommendations, particularly those that target impunity. In Sierra Leone, the international community was eager to raise the flag of justice, actively supporting negotiations, a peace agreement, elections, a TRC, and a hybrid Special Court. In Liberia, the flag seems to have stopped at half-mast. While negotiations, a peace agreement, and elections were fervently supported, disinterest appears to have set in when it came to the subject of justice and reconciliation. Many in the international community genuinely feared a reignition of ethnic politics and conflict mongering. But that does not fully explain why the Johnson Sirleaf administration, a darling of the West, has felt so little pressure to pursue the TRC’s recommendations.

The horrors visited upon Liberia are no less repugnant than those suffered by Sierra Leone, but it remains unclear whether Liberia’s victims will ever be vindicated. Must they be content with the substitute justice provided by the Special Court for Sierra Leone? Are they simply willing to forget and forgive, and hope that the festering wounds of the past do not poison their future? Whatever path Liberians choose at this juncture, justice and reconciliation remain incomplete.

* Jaclyn Burger is a freelance consultant based in South Africa. She specializes in postconflict peacebuilding and has worked in Liberia, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She covered the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission while serving with the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

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