The guilty verdict by the judges of the Special Court for Sierra Leone against Liberia's former president Charles Taylor is important for both Africa and the international community.
As UN sanctions inspector from 2001-03, I saw Charles Taylor regularly moving between Sierra Leone and Liberia as he orchestrated violence and criminality in both countries. At the time, mixing with child soldiers, gun runners and diamond smugglers, I would never have imagined the positive transformation Sierra Leone and Liberia have enjoyed over the last decade. Massive challenges remain but both countries are peaceful with fast growing economies.
A key reason for almost a decade of peace in both countries was the containment of Charles Taylor through UN sanctions, military action, and the indictment by the Special Court. This resulted in Taylor accepting the offer of a soft landing via exile in Calabar from then Nigerian President Obasanjo in late 2003. Eventually, in March 2006, Nigeria arrested Taylor and extradited him to Liberia which handed him to the Special Court in Freetown but he was transferred for security reasons to The Hague. Despite being elected Liberian President, Charles Taylor never graduated from being a warlord, seeking riches from his alliance with brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone as part of his ambition for a 'greater Liberia'.
The case has not been without problems. I still believe that the March 2003 indictment by the Special Court on 17 initial counts against Taylor upset sensitive negotiations with him that were taking place in Ghana. The result was to have Taylor rush back to Monrovia and an unnecessary spike in conflict, claiming thousands of civilian lives. Prosecutors need to consider carefully the timing of indictments - at the end of the day the timing of issuing an indictment is a political one. The indictment timing by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan greatly complicated international mediation efforts in Sudan.
Hopefully lessons can be learned, as clearly a 'just' peace, is better than just peace. In Taylor’s case, Britain played an important role. The UK has supported stabilization and post-conflict reconstruction in Sierra Leone and continues to engage deeply there. In 2006 then Prime Minister Tony Blair helped by offering a UK jail to host Charles Taylor if he was convicted by the Special Court. This was a brave political decision, as there were no other offers and the Netherlands did not want to host Taylor beyond the trial. This gesture helped stabilize the relationship between the two countries, resulting in declining aid and increasing trade – all in Britain's interests. This autumn the UK is reopening its embassy in Monrovia with a resident ambassador there for the first time since 1991 and is well placed to benefit from the generosity it has shown in supporting peace in the region.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone predates the setting up of the International Criminal Court in 2002. In December 2011 the former president of Cote d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo was transferred to the ICC in The Hague to face four charges of crimes against humanity in the wake of the disputed presidential elections in late 2010. He is the first former head of state to appear at the ICC and will no doubt will have been watching Charles Taylor’s plight closely. The ICC is currently hearing six other cases, all relating to crimes committed in Africa, including from Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As a new chief prosecutor takes over from Louis Moreno-Ocampo at the ICC, hopefully lessons from past efforts can be learned. The former President of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano, speaking at Chatham House, observed that Mozambique’s successful peace agreement twenty years ago with the then brutal rebel group Renamo would have not been achieved if its leader Afonso Dhlakama had been indicted by the ICC. I don’t fully agree with this, but do believe that timing and context play a role. The skill of the chief prosecutor is to obtain compelling evidence but also not be so focused on an individual prosecution that the wider human rights context is forgotten and a sustainable settlement can be reached.
Alex Vines is Head of Africa Programme, Chatham House and from 2001-3 a member of the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia.
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Expert Comment, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, 26 April 2012