The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted for just over a decade from 1991 to 2002 and resulted in an estimated 50,000 deaths. The country was filled with corruption and poverty but, it was the control over Sierra Leone’s diamonds that was the fuel to the fire.
The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group within the war, was widely known for the brutality of their crimes. Their leader Foday Sankoh has even been named the Hitler of West Africa.
The RUF recruited child soldiers and would kill the child’s family and friends in front of them to instil fear. Their most infamous crime was their method of preventing innocent civilians from voting, by amputating the limbs of a large proportion of the population. As a result, those who survived struggled with day to day life and getting jobs. They were forced into a life of begging, even to this day. Furthermore, there was indiscriminate killing of civilians and destruction of property, which violates the fundamental laws of armed conflict and international human rights law.
Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia and the neighbouring country to Sierra Leone has recently been charged with committing war crimes, not in his own nation of Liberia but in relation to the civil war that took place in Sierra Leone.
He was accused of aiding and abetting the RUF during the civil war in Sierra Leone with the intention of gaining some shares in blood diamonds. He allegedly supplied the RUF with ammunition and helped fund the war in exchange for some gain in the precious diamonds of Sierra Leone. By doing so, he encouraged the war and its brutalities. On the balance of probability, if Charles Taylor had not carried out these actions, the RUF would not have gained power and so, war crimes would not have been committed. Understandably, the victims of the war, in most part, blamed their suffering and loss on Charles Taylor.
Who is Charles Taylor?
Charles Taylor is the former president of Liberia (1997–2003). He stepped down from his presidency on 11 August 2003. He was indicted a few months later on 4 June 2003 but, the trial opened a few years later in 2007. As can be seen from the lengthy time it took for the ball to get rolling, there was much anticipation surrounding the trial.
The Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL) was set up to convict those who had committed crimes and held the: ‘greatest responsibility’ in the war crimes, crimes against humanity and, other serious violations during the 11 year conflict. It was formed on the basis of an agreement between the United Nations (UN) and the Sierra Leone government and so, is a hybrid court. It deals with both branches of domestic and international laws and also logistics. It has a mix of judges appointed by the UN secretary general and some appointed by the Sierra Leone government.
For security reasons Charles Taylor was tried at The Hague, Netherlands and he was held there in remand until his sentencing. The Security Council resolution 1688 dictated the transfer of the location of Charles Taylor’s trial and the resolution passed with a unanimous vote.
Even though technically Charles Taylor was convicted by the SCSL, not everyone fully agreed with such a westernised location. There was some anger amongst some that they were still living in poverty and hardship, whilst Charles Taylor was in a place of comfort and was well fed every day. There were some mixed views leading up to the trial and even to this day. The victims of the civil war wanted nothing more than the justice they deserved for all the suffering.
The court tried to rationalise the transfer of Charles Taylor by stating that they feared that the presence of his trial would destabilise West Africa. The Netherlands agreed to host the trial under the conditions that if Charles Taylor had been found guilty, he would be imprisoned elsewhere. The United Kingdom volunteered to undertake this responsibility. The cooperation amongst the states confirms the growing strength in international criminal justice.
It can be said that the way that the case of Charles Taylor was dealt with undermined the criminal justice system of the African community. It can easily be perceived as just another way for the western world to maintain control over Africa. On the other hand, the case shows the lack of tolerance towards the issue of impunity within Africa.
Taylor’s trial was originally planned to last up to 18 months but instead lasted seven years. Taylor was charged with 11 counts in total (listed below) which include war crimes; and crimes against humanity during 1996 – 2002:
- Five counts of war crimes: terrorizing civilians, murder, outrages on personal dignity, cruel treatment, and looting;
- Five counts of crimes against humanity: murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilating and beating, and enslavement;
- One count of other serious violations of international humanitarian law.
The trial chamber assed the capacity of Charles Taylor’s liability in aiding the Sierra Leone war. A number of aspects were analysed, a few examples include: practical assistance, sustained operational support and prolonged guidance during the war.
Even though Charles Taylor played a role in releasing United Nations peace keepers and civilians under hostage, this was not considered to be a mitigating factor upon reflecting the consequences of his incriminating actions.
Charles Taylor pleaded not guilty and at no point did Charles Taylor show regret for the war crimes he had been charged with. During the sentencing the trial chamber even stated that he lacked a: ‘real and sincere remorse’. Based on his actions, it can be inferred that Charles Taylor was guilty.
Some of the charges that Charles Taylor was accused of indirectly causing:
- The murder of civilians; cutting limbs; using women and girls as sex slaves; the abduction of children; the forced labour of children.
He was sentenced to a prison term of 50 years in prison and the judgment was delivered on 30 May 2012. It was upheld on 26 September 2013, affirming the original verdict. The case of Charles Taylor shows that the force of International Criminal Justice is getting stronger and everyone can be held accountable, even heads of state.
Charles Taylor was never made legally accountable for the crimes he committed within his own country. The case has set precedence for those who may aid wars external to their own nation. If the verdict had been different and he had not been found guilty, the Liberian nation still had the option of putting Charles Taylor on trial through their own national judicial process. Based on the circumstances, there was always little chance that Charles Taylor would have walked out a free man.