To what extent has Taylor’s judgment brought justice?

On Thursday 26 April 2012, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was found guilty of all 11 counts that the Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) indicted him for in 2003. The charges against Taylor include war crimes and crimes against humanity in the form of sexual slavery, enslavement and pillage. The summary of the judgment read out by the Presiding Judge Richard Lussick was the first judgment delivered by an international tribunal for crimes committed by a Head of State. In this sense the SCSL has set the precedence for the first international tribunal to convict a Head of State. The SCSL found Taylor guilty on the basis of two forms of liability: planning of the attacks and crimes in Kono, Kenema and Freetown; and aiding and abetting a host of activities in Sierra Leone such as the supply of ammunition to rebel groups that committed crimes in these towns in Sierra Leone.

It was not all wins for the Prosecution. The judges were clear that the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt was not established for Taylor’s criminal liability under the joint criminal enterprise doctrine. The Prosecution failed to sufficiently demonstrate that the support given by Taylor to the RUF and AFRC rebel groups was part of a common plan. The Judges also found that liability under the superior responsibility doctrine was not sufficiently established. The Prosecution failed to show that Charles Taylor had effective control over the activities and crimes committed by other individuals such as the late Foday Sankoh, who headed one of the rebel groups.

Following the reading of the judgment summary, the Prosecution and Defence are expected to file briefs on the sentence, which sentencing is expected to be done May 30, 2012. The Prosecutor of the SCSL has indicated that the Prosecutions brief on sentencing will be based on the seriousness of the crimes committed and the concrete level of involvement of Taylor in the crimes he has been convicted of. It is expected that appellate proceedings will commence once receipt of the written judgement and sentence have been received by the parties.

Representatives of civil society in Sierra Leone present in The Hague for the reading of the judgment expressed their satisfaction with the judgment. Abu, a civil society activist in Sierra Leone voiced his pleasure in the international criminal justice system. He says of the Taylor’s conviction that “regardless of position as Head of State there is no more impunity for international crimes committed by such leaders.” This pronouncement echoes the prevailing provisions of the Rome Statute of the ICC which codifies international criminal law and which provides that official capacity of an accused person in a State does not provide immunity from criminal liability. The SCSL judgment builds to the body of persuasive rulings that call for accountability for Heads of State. This obviously brings back into public discussions the implementation of the warrant of arrest out for the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir.

Of equal importance is the effect of the judgment on the many victims and communities affected by the crimes that Taylor has been found guilty of committing. Abu continues that the judgment “contributes to the healing process in Sierra Leone.” Whereas the Prosecutor Brenda Hollis was clear that the work of the SCSL is to effect its mandate on criminal matters and that her upcoming trip to Sierra Leone will focus on the pronouncements of the SCSL Judges, it was not immediately clear how else the judgment will promote reconciliation in Sierra Leone, particularly the contribution to the reparations process in the country. The SCSL Statute, like those of the ICTY and ICTR does not provide for reparations for victims of crimes within the mandate of the Court. It does however provide for forfeiture of assets, which can be a basis for claims by victims. The claims are however contingent on a guilty verdict and the victim’s demonstration of personal harm occasioned to the victim by the convicted person. Establishing this nexus is difficult for victims of the crimes perpetuated by Taylor. It is clear however that the plight of victims of crimes in Sierra Leone living with the effects of amputations and loss of loved ones needs urgent attention. The Sierra Leonean government has nevertheless begun a reparations process with the establishment of a National Commission for Social Action. The Commission is assisting communities to rebuild livelihoods in Sierra Leone following the civil war in the region. The Commission is however in need of more funds as does it need to expand its definition of victims as beneficiaries of a reparations scheme.

Speaking on the legacy of the SCSL to the Sierra Leonean people, activists were quick to point out that witness protection has received a significant boost from the presence of the SCSL and the rigours demanded from its Statute as a hybrid court that combines local and international aspects in its functions. The Outreach (whatever this means) has also been boosted as have the interactions among civil society agitating for accountability for crimes committed to Sierra Leonean people during the conflict.

The Taylor judgment brings back into the court of public opinion, the tardiness of the international justice system overall in responding to the needs of states in transition let alone the needs of victims and affected communities. For starters, the expense that has been met to bring Taylor to account to the exclusion of other individuals – now deceased or living freely in Liberia is not justifiable in light of the magnitude and plight of the victims of these crimes. Some of these individuals are still living in Liberia and Sierra Leone. One wonders whether the vast resources expended could have been better used to build the capacity of Sierra Leone to bring more people to account for the crimes in that country and more importantly for the social reconstruction needed.

A critical question raised from the judgment is why names were not mentioned of beneficiaries of the “blood diamonds” of Sierra Leone aside from Taylor and his rebel allies. The non-palatable position is that other individuals, multinational companies and even states benefitted from the serious crimes committed against the people of Sierra Leone, in pursuit of the diamonds. Would you like these other individuals, multinationals and even other states mentioned as beneficiaries of the “blood diamonds” and should they not also be brought to account and contribute to the reparations fund in Sierra Leone?

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