A Taylor-made Criminal Court?

At this stage, it seems that he will be tried by the UN-backed Special Court on Sierra Leone for his indirect role in the Sierra Leone conflict rather than for his long series of crimes in coming to power through civil war in Liberia and then his actions as president of Liberia 1997-2003.  The Taylor case merits close attention for the light it throws on the rule of law in Africa and the role of international criminal courts as Taylor’s will be the first international trial of a former head of state in Africa.

Most African heads of state forced from power have found exile homes with friends such as Idi Amin of Uganda in Saudia Arabia, Milton Obote also of Uganda in Zambia, Chad’s Hissein Habre in Senegal and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam in Zimbabwe. There have been a few national trials, always in absentia, such as those of Pascal Lissouba in the Congo-Brazzaville, and Ange-Felix Patasse in the Central African Republic, but these were "victor’s justice" with pre-set conclusions.  They did not dig very deeply into events nor into any injustices committed by the victors.  These trials cast little light on the history of the country except for those who had already followed events closely.

Each trial of a head of state or important leader follows its own pattern, and it will be useful to see what a "Taylor-made" trial will be.  However, to date there are two very different patterns being followed by the prosecution of such trials.  The one model is the trial of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague – recently terminated by his death – but which leaves some 300,000 pages of oral and written evidence. The prosecution set out to show the role of Milosevic in the three major conflicts of former Yugoslavia: Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.  Only in the Kosovo case was Milosevic directly a decision-maker.  In the other two cases, it was thought that his was the hidden hand pulling strings but the open leadership was others.  The Serbian government paid for some of the arms, equipment and salaries of the militias in Croatia and Bosnia, but Milosevic signed little.  The prosecutors tried to build a sweeping historical indictment, and the material collected will be helpful for future historians of the break up of Yugoslavia.

The opposite model is that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  The prosecution has decided to split the accusations against Saddam Hussein into small segments and taking one event – retaliation against the village of Dujail for a failed assassination attempt – as the first case.  If Saddam Hussein is found guilty and draws a possible death sentence, the decision may put an end to the trials.  The over-all history of the years of Saddam Hussein’s government will not be investigated.

If the Special Court on Sierra Leone deals only with crimes in Sierra Leone’s civil war, there will be a need to show Taylor’s role from a distance and through intermediaries.

Basically the new government of Liberia does not want a trial of Taylor in Liberia where he still has followers and where the scars of the Liberian armed struggles for power are not healed.  A trial would bring up real divisions which the new government does not care to face at this time when re-building the economic and social infrastructure is the main priority.


This is the first of three articles on Charles Taylor by TowardFreedom.com writer Rene Wadlow. The second will deal with Taylor’s actions and policies in Liberia. The third will look at Taylor’s role in the Sierra Leone conflicts.

For a useful overview of international criminal courts, both country specific and the new International Criminal Court see Eric K. Leonard. The Onset of Global Governance: International Relations Theory and the International Criminal Court (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, 250pp.)

For a study of the international legal- human rights and humanitarian law -standards to which non-governmental militias are to be held and thus the legal basis for the accusations against Taylor see:Andrew Clapham. Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, 613pp.)

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva. Photo from Wikipedia.org