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Refugee Rights News
Volume 3, Issue 2
July 2006

Prosecuting a Warlord: Charles Taylor facing justice at last

On July 21, 2006, history was made as former Liberian President Charles Taylor appeared in a courtroom in the Hague to answer eleven charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Netherlands has agreed to host Taylor’s trial and the United Kingdom has agreed to jail him in the event that he is convicted. The trial of one of West Africa’s most wanted seems poised to begin.

The transfer was the latest step in a three year long struggle to bring the former President to Court. Taylor was indicted by the Sierra Leone Special Court in March 2003. When he fled from Liberia in August 2003, he was able to take refuge in Nigeria, thanks to an internationally brokered deal which offered provisional safe haven.

Ever since Taylor fled to Nigeria in August 2003, regional and international NGOs have been campaigning to ensure that Taylor is tried. The International Refugee Rights Initiative took part in this effort by working with the Open Society Justice Initiative to draft a legal brief arguing that Taylor was ineligible for asylum in Nigeria on the grounds that international law excludes individuals who are believed to have committed serious international crimes from protection as refugees. The brief was submitted in a case brought by several Nigerian victims of Taylor’s atrocities, calling on the Nigerian government to hand him over. Other groups issued political calls to see Taylor handed over and tried to establish that he was violating the terms of his exile agreement by continuing to meddle in Liberian politics. (See “Charles Taylor: One Step Closer to Justice," Refugee Rights News, Volume 2, Issue 4, November 2005; "Is Charles Taylor's Time Up?" Refugee Rights News, Volume 2, Issue 2, July 2005.)

The road to the Special Court

On March 18, under fierce international pressure, Liberia’s newly elected president, Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, formally demanded Taylor’s extradition in a speech to the United Nations Security Council.  Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had made such a request a prerequisite to handing Taylor over, announced on March 25 that Liberia was free to take Taylor into custody. The announcement spurred Taylor’s flight from Calabar and his eventual apprehension as he attempted to escape into neighboring Cameroon.

The Nigerian boarder guards who had captured Taylor on March 27 had handed him over to peacekeepers in Liberia. Acting under the mandate of a 2005 Security Council resolution, UN peacekeepers flew Taylor from Liberia to neighboring Sierra Leone to face eleven charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity on March 29.  At his first court appearance on April 3, Taylor pled “not guilty” to all charges and challenged the legality of the UN-backed tribunal. 

Security concerns and the “Hague Option”

Taylor’s capture, extradition, and arrest spun the international community into a maelstrom. Kofi Annan welcomed news of Taylor’s arrest, stating that “his capture and being put on trial does not only close a chapter, but it also sends a powerful message to the region that impunity will not be allowed to stand, and would-be warlords will pay a price.”

At the same time, some feared that Taylor’s return would reignite conflict. President Sirleaf, who was originally hesitant to push for Taylor’s extradition, cautioned that peace and security in the volatile region remains tenuous.  “Liberia’s peace is fragile.  There are many loyalists in our country to Mr. Taylor; there are many business interests he has.  Whatever decision is taken by the African leadership must ensure that the safety of the Liberian people and the stability of our nation is not undermined.”

The President of the Special Court requested that the government of the Netherlands and the President of the International Criminal Court (ICC) facilitate Taylor’s trial at The Hague.  The Special Court will remain the adjudicating body while using the ICC’s facilities.  In defense of the so-called “Hague Option,” Chief Prosecutor Desmond de Silva cited President Sirleaf’s plea to move Taylor out of the region, and assured international community that the Court’s founding principles of citizen participation and community outreach would be maintained during Taylor’s trial in the Hague.

Possible ramifications for international justice

Although the failure to try Taylor in Sierra Leone may hinder public participation and the trial’s impact on regional reconciliation, Taylor’s indictment and the cooperation of numerous countries in his prosecution heralds a victory for international justice.

Taylor’s transfer too will greatly curtail the distinctive qualities of the Sierra Leone Special Court’s in-country location and hybrid structure.  The Court’s emphasis on local participation, accessibility, and the possibility of strengthening the Sierra Leonean judiciary as well as the regional legitimacy of the Court will be challenged by an out of country trial. The security concerns raised in the region are obstacles that have to be taken serious, but perhaps more could have been done to explore how international assistance in shoring up security structures could have provided an alternative to moving the trial. Now that the trial has been moved to the Hague, the court must take innovated steps to ensure that the proceedings reach those most affected by Taylor’s crimes.  Public awareness campaigns, media attention and outreach programs may assist in protecting the public integrity and legitimacy of the court.

Special Court Prosecutor Desmond de Silva heralded Taylor’s capture: “Today is a momentous occasion and an important day for international justice, the international community, and above all, the people of Sierra Leone. His presence in the custody of the Special Court sends out the clear message that no matter how rich, powerful or feared people may be—the law is above them.”

Taylor’s trial signals an enormous development in international justice and a major shift in international policy.  Other notorious African heads of state have found refuge in friendly countries and escaped prosecution for horrendous human rights abuses; examples include two of Uganda’s most nefarious despots, Idi Amin and Milton Obote, as well as Chadian dictator Hissein Habre and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam. 

Most importantly, however, is the impact of the trial on allowing Liberia to rebuild. Speaking about Taylor’s transfer to the Hague, President Johnson Sirleaf said, “it allows Liberia to move forward. As long as the threat of return was there, it held certain risks for us.” It is hoped that Liberia will truly be able to move forward from the atrocities of Taylor’s reign.

This article was contributed by Annamartine Salick, an intern with the International Refugee Rights Initiative.