Supporters of Taylor, including those active on the Open Society website which has provided daily reports and periodic assessments of the case, have long and vocally complained about the bias against African leaders they perceive in the operations of the court, and in the process of international justice more broadly, with its patent inability to address the crimes of powerful Western leaders. This view has been echoed by Taylor’s barrister Courtney Griffiths in his criticism of the politicized nature of the case, as well as by Taylor himself in his claims of a US conspiracy against him. Others are more concerned about the serious inadequacies in the process of transitional justice in Liberia itself that have been laid bare by the conviction of Taylor for his role in the Sierra Leone conflict.
Many people believe that Taylor should instead have been on trial for the countless crimes he committed during the protracted conflicts in his own country, a process which would have avoided the difficulties and expense of proving the nature of his connection with the Sierra Leone rebel groups. Others feel strongly that other perpetrators in Liberia should also face justice, posing the question of why Liberians do not deserve an international war crimes tribunal when the international community has funded one for Sierra Leone.
This issue goes beyond the international level however, with the national failure to implement the findings of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established as part of the 2003 Accra peace agreement that ended the conflict, having also severely undermined the process of transitional justice in Liberia. The controversial nature of the commission’s recommendations as contained in its final report of June 2009, which included the banning from public office of a long list of individuals deemed to bear some responsibility for the conflict including President Johnson-Sirleaf herself, as well as the prosecution of a much shorter list of those deemed the most responsible, ultimately precluded their implementation by the current government, and may thus have been a strategic mistake by those commissioners who pushed for this approach. The TRC report has been more or less shelved as a result, leaving unresolved a whole range of transitional justice issues, although the president has recently revived the reconciliation aspect through her establishment of a commission headed by Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee.
But while the new commission may provide a forum for debate and go some way to fostering a greater sense of reconciliation, this may not sufficiently compensate for the continued lack of retributive justice. Some commentators including the former Chair of the TRC Jerome Verdier believe that the failure to prosecute any of those responsible for the conflict and associated atrocities will ultimately hinder the country’s ability to achieve lasting peace. Even former warlord Senator Johnson has concurred with this view, suggesting that ‘generational hatred’ could result.
Others equally feel that the demons of the past, many of which were extensively aired during the TRC hearings despite the flaws of its outcome, are better laid to rest once and for all as the country moves forward in its efforts to build a brighter future. There are no clear or obvious answers to the question of whether peace can be sustainable in the absence of some meaningful form of justice, with historical experience offering only conflicting insights. The new Reconciliation Commission may shed some light on how this issue is viewed by the Liberians themselves, and on the strength of local desires to seek retribution or attempt to move ahead without it, and the verdict in Taylor’s trial has also sparked greater local debate on these issues than since the publication of the TRC’s final report.
A further important and unresolved issue is whether this landmark conviction of a former head of state will serve the interests of peace more broadly, as maintained by human rights groups which claim that the increased possibility of facing justice will cause perpetrators to think twice before committing war crimes. Taylor’s conviction may also have the opposite impact however, with perpetrators instead thinking twice about participating in peace processes given the increased risk of prosecution following any resolution, and the likes of Assad or Bashir now perhaps even more eager to cling to power.
The indictment by the International Criminal Court of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony does seem to have deterred him from taking part in peace talks in this way, and may thus have inadvertently helped to perpetuate his commission of atrocities. The impact on the Liberian peace process of Taylor’s indictment, which came at a crucial point in the negotiations at Accra, is still being debated. While some feel that it increased the pressure on him to step down in the summer of 2003, others think it prolonged the fighting and accompanying death and destruction, and that it was only the achievement of a compromise that allowed Taylor to go into exile believing he would be protected from the court, that enabled the peace process to proceed. Justice and peace may thus not always be complementary goals.
So, a victory for justice for Sierra Leoneans, at least, and the right verdict, given the realities of Taylor’s role in that conflict. And an important precedent in international criminal justice, particularly in relation to the newly established war crimes of using child soldiers and sex slaves, and rape as a weapon of war. But overall the conviction of Charles Taylor represents only a very partial achievement for the broader cause of transitional justice in Liberia and beyond, with the selective nature of the process it’s critical and perhaps insurmountable flaw.
(Continued from Wednesday, June 19, 2012 Edition)
Dr. Philippa Atkinson has recently completed a PhD on the history of the Liberian conflict which she is in the process of getting published. Having taught on conflict and globalization for many years at the London School of Economics, she is currently working as a consultant and researcher and is based in Singapore.