Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What, Charles Taylor worry?

Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor is on trial in The Hague, facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. So why doesn't he appear to be very concerned about his fate?

Specifically, Taylor is being taken to task for his role in fueling a nasty civil war in Liberia's neighbor, Sierra Leone. Somewhat comically, Taylor is facing absolutely no charges regarding his much more prominent role in starting an incredibly bloody war in his own country. The "Special Court for Sierra Leone" must know about how Charles Taylor's 1989 armed rebellion against then president Samuel K. Doe led to nearly 17 years of bloodshed and mayhem inside Liberia, but curiously, nobody inside the cogs of the travesty of the international justice system appears to have given that much thought. Instead, he was arrested for the crime of supplying arms and cash to an illiterate warlord in Sierra Leone.

Taylor was set to be tried by the infamously impotent International Criminal Court, but due to predictable procedural and bureaucratic foul ups, they'd decided that "too much time" had passed to try Taylor under their auspices, leading to the current "Special Court for Sierra Leone", which is a hybrid organization convened by the United Nations and Sierra Leone. How, exactly, the world's most lethargic international organization and Sierra Leone managed to convene a court to take care of Charles Taylor is baffling enough, but the question of how Charles Taylor has managed to escape justice in Liberia is even more confusing.

When Taylor was finally forced out of office, he was offered (and accepted) refuge in Nigeria. However, the Nigerians bowed to international (and more specifically, American) pressure to do something with Taylor, and promptly sent him back to Liberia. Liberia's current democratically elected President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, formally requested that Taylor be sent back to Liberia. After his return, he was arrested at the airport by Liberian police, and sent just as swiftly via UN helicopter to Sierra Leone. At no point does Johnson-Sirleaf appear to have publicly discussed so much as the possibility of bringing Taylor to account for crimes committed during his reign in Liberia, and offered no explanation for why she was so eager to comply with the demands of the United Nations and so reticent to keep him in Liberia for trial there.

Some of the usual explanations come to mind. Liberia had not yet rebuilt its judicial institutions after the civil war, which is valid, but frankly, Sierra Leone's judicial institutions were in no better shape than Liberia's. Then there's the canard about "political unrest" in Liberia should Taylor face trial, but that doesn't hold much water, either. By the time Taylor was forced out of office, there wasn't a political faction loyal to Taylor remaining in Liberia powerful enough to do anything at all.

Whatever the reason, Taylor is doubtlessly relieved. He's currently facing victor's justice in the Netherlands, with the worst possible outcome being life in a cushy jail cell, complete with cable TV, maid service, and croissants for breakfast. He could be in Liberia facing victim's justice - which could very well have led him to a life sentence in a Liberian jail, surrounded by hostile countrymen who remember the chaos Taylor caused only too well. For Taylor, the decision was a no brainer. Hell, he might even beat the rap for all anyone knows. The entire Taylor trial as it stands now is being treated like a laboratory experiment in international bureaucracy, with the outcome being seen as less infinitely important than "the learning process". Apparently, Slobodan Milošević really threw a wrench in the works by having the gall to die before his interminable experiment with the same process concluded. Happily for international bureaucrats everywhere they can try again, as Milošević's death now leaves Charles Taylor as the newest guinea pig for the process. The chances that the Special Court trial hits a fatal snag and declares a mistrial on procedural grounds aren't all that remote. On the other hand, Taylor's conviction and punishment in Liberia would practically be guaranteed.

The lesson here for aspiring dictators is: in the event of ouster, please surrender immediately to whatever international legal organization you can, as quickly as possible before you find yourself being judged and imprisoned by your own victims. Charles Taylor would certainly agree with me on this one.

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