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Refugee Rights News
Volume 2, Issue 2
July 2005

Is Charles Taylor’s Time Up?

It has been more than two years since the Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since then, Taylor has managed to evade justice, sliding from Liberia as rebels closed on the capital to comfortable exile in Nigeria. His days of safety and security, however, may be at an end if African and international NGOs have their way.

On June 30, a coalition of African and international NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Open Society Justice Initiative launched a campaign to see Taylor handed over. In their statement, the civil society coalition said that Nigeria’s refusal to deliver Taylor to justice “flout[ed] international law and [was] an affront to Taylor’s innumerable victims.” They called on the African Union to work with the Nigerian government to see that Taylor was handed over to the Special Court.

This campaign marks one of the most concerted efforts to push for Taylor’s prosecution to date, but it is merely the latest battle in an ongoing war. Even before Charles Taylor made his way to Nigeria, human rights organizations were emphasizing the need to hand him over. In fact, many organizations have worked on this issue over the last two years.

In August 2003, as Taylor was making his move to Nigeria, Human Rights First (HRF) argued that Taylor should be handed over to the Special Court. According to HRF, international law created an obligation for states to see those responsible for the most serious international crimes brought to trial. Not only was this important for the purposes of advancing international justice, the organization argued, it was important for the purposes of upholding the sanctity of the international refugee regime.

By offering “asylum” to Taylor, Nigeria muddied already dangerous waters. Protecting an indicted criminal, Human Rights First argued, undermined the already fragile protection extended to refugees in the region—refugees who are already increasingly being viewed as threats to security.

These arguments were taken forward by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) and the Open Society Justice Initiative in a legal brief submitted to a Nigerian court which was considering revoking Taylor’s status. The legal action was initiated by a group of Nigerian victims of the atrocities in Sierra Leone to challenge the grant of asylum to Taylor and request that he be rendered to the Special Court to face justice. The brief argued that the grant of asylum to Taylor was improper, based both on defects in the procedure and on the legal requirements for refugee status under international law. In particular the exclusion clauses state that those suspected of serious international crimes should not be allowed to benefit from the protections intended for their victims. The brief was presented to the court in November 2004. The case was argued over a period of several months and is now awaiting a decision, which was deferred until after the court’s current recess and is expected in September 2005.

Meanwhile, other groups have taken up the fight. In Liberia, the Foundation for International Dignity (FIND) has called for Taylor’s trial. In May 2005, supported by other organizations such as the Rencontre Africaine pour la Defense des Droits del’Homme (RADDHO) and the Open Society Justice Initiative, it took the fight to New York, arguing for strong action by the UN Security Council.

Building on evidence gathered by the Prosecutor of the Sierra Leone Special Court and the Coalition for International Justice, they made the argument that even if the initial grant of asylum to Taylor was an appropriate step in the interests of peace, his actions while in exile in Calabar, Nigeria, have made his continued shelter in Nigeria untenable. The Sierra Leone Special Court has accused Taylor of continuing to foment instability in the region. Specifically, the Prosecutor claims to have evidence that Taylor is supporting at least nine of the eighteen parties contending in Liberia’s elections, scheduled for October 2005. In addition, there is evidence of Taylor’s involvement in a January 2005 assassination attempt on Guinean President Lansana Conte.

The Coalition for International Justice published a report, “Following Taylor’s Money: A Path of War and Destruction,” which bolsters claims that Taylor is undermining security in the region. In particular, the report notes that Taylor is continuing to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to longstanding military supporters to train, equip and maintain a military force which continues to threaten the fragile peace in Liberia and the region as a whole. Speaking at a conference organized to launch the Coalition for International Justice’s report, FIND’s Regional Representative, Samuel Kofi Woods, said that the defeat of international justice would only “perpetuate a vicious cycle of impunity and bruise the faith of ordinary people.”

A few weeks later these findings were bolstered by a report issued by the NGO Global Witness, “Timber, Taylor, Soldier, Spy,” on June 15. Global Witness said that the continued failure to exert control over Liberia’s diamond and timber industries, along with Taylor’s continuing meddling, threatened to derail Liberia’s peace process. Natalie Ashworth, speaking on behalf of Global Witness, said that it was “time for the international community to stop risking the lives of West Africa’s war-weary citizens for political expediency: keep the sanctions in place, take the tough action necessary to help Liberia move forward, and bring an end to Taylor’s ability to undermine regional security.” A Liberian organization, Liberia United for Transparent Elections, has made similar accusations.

The efforts of these NGOs evidently had an impact. On June 21, 2005, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1607, singling out Taylor. The Resolution expressed “deep concern at information that former President Charles Taylor and others still closely associated with him continue to engage in activities that undermine peace and stability in Liberia and the region.” The Resolution also specifically noted that sanctions on Taylor and his immediate family, intended to prevent his further meddling in Liberian affairs, would remain in place and called on the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) to work with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the transitional government in Liberia to more effectively implement these provisions.

While the Security Council’s action constitutes a positive step, it has not induced the Nigerian government to change its policy. On July 4, Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo, speaking at the AU Summit in Sirte, Libya, complained that Nigeria was being harassed for a decision it had take in consultation with the international community and to end bloodshed in Liberia. If the “harassment” did not end, he warned, he would bring the matter back to the AU, but Nigeria could not hand Taylor over. As recently as July 21, Nigeria’s foreign minister, Oluyemi Adenji, reiterated that Nigeria had no intention of handing Charles Taylor to the Special Court.

Much more remains to be done. In particular, there is a need to show African civil society support for handing over Taylor to the Special Court. It is hoped that other civil society voices in Africa will lend their voices to those who have already spoken out.

Read more:  

Coalition for International Justice, “Following Taylor’s Money: A Path of War and Destruction,” May 2005.

Human Rights First, “ The World’s Most Wanted Refugee ,” August 2003.

Open Society Justice Initiative, “Amicus Curiae Brief in the Matter of David Anyaele and Emmanuel Egbuna v. Charles Ghankay Taylor and Others ,” November 2004.