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30 Apr 2012

Charles Taylor: guilty, but what does it mean for international law?

Charles Taylor, the deposed president of Liberia, was found guilty of 11 charges including murder, rape, sexual slavery and enforced amputations, unanimously, by a UN-backed tribunal, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in The Hague on 26 April 2012. The man who “aided and abetted” war crimes in Sierra Leone heard the judgment with hands clasped in front of him, blinking as the list of his criminal responsibility was read out. Mr Taylor is the first ex-head of state to be prosecuted by an international criminal court since Admiral Karl Donitz, the man who assumed control of Nazi Germany following Hitler’s suicide, in 1946.

Taylor, 64, the first African head of state to be brought before an international tribunal had pleaded not guilty to all 11 charges. The sentence will be handed down on 16 May this year. Taylor has a right to appeal against the conviction. If he loses this, he is expected to serve his sentence in a British prison, as the Dutch government only agreed to host the trial if any ensuing jail term was served in another country.

Between 1996 and 2002, the rebel Revolutionary United Front (“RUF”), which Taylor supported, was found by the court to have committed crimes involving terrorising civilian populations, murder, rape, sexual slavery and enforced amputations in Sierra Leone. The judge said Taylor told RUF commanders to seize and hold the diamond-producing areas of Sierra Leone so that he could continue trading for arms and ammunition. The court found that despite Taylor’s denials, he knew from August 1997 about the campaign of terror being waged against the civilian population in Sierra Leone, including murder, rape and amputations. Taylor continued fuelling the conflict by providing arms and ammunition to the RUF in Sierra Leone helping to undermine the peace process even when there was a regional arms embargo in force.

But what does this mean for international justice? Is this the just conviction of a war criminal or one of the most costly trials in history realising few benefits?

The defence argued that despite the fact that the atrocities certainly took place, there was no real nexus linking Taylor to them. However, the Tribunal accepted the prosecution case that there was a nexus between Taylor and the conduct of the armed groups. This will be valuable for future prosecutions before different courts that seek to determine the responsibility of high-level officials and Ministers. Tempering this, the Court found that Taylor did not have a position of “command responsibility” over the armed groups, or over Liberian fighters sent to Sierra Leone, and so he was not responsible for their criminal acts by reason of a co-coordinator relationship. Another point raised by the defence was that the prosecution was illegitimate since it was politically motivated and the result of biased selectivity. The Court’s rejection of this point is hugely important. The question of selectivity in the enforcement of international criminal law has been, and remains, a fundamental challenge to the system.

There were serious questions raised at the commencement of the trial about the possibility of charging Taylor with the aforementioned crimes and also about the legitimacy of international criminal law. The verdict could be seen as a vindication of the bringing of this case, even though Mr Taylor has not been found to be criminally responsible to the extent alleged. Even though the case ends with this slightly bitter pill to swallow, it’s important to remember that new, fundamental legal precedents have been established for future international trials and that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo, who await trial in the detention centre of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, will be feeling somewhat uncomfortable upon hearing the judgement against the man with whom they once shared a detention centre.

Corker Binning is a law firm specialising in criminal work of all kinds and with significant international experience.  Call now on 0207 353 6000.

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