June 21, 2006
Taylor at the ICC: Good News for International Justice
Great Britain has stepped up and offered to house the former Liberian president Charles Taylor if he is convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court at the Hague. This is great news because the trial was stalled unless a third country could jail the dictator.
AllAfrica.com reported today the Netherlands agreed to host the trial if a third country would jail Taylor if he were to be sentenced to a prison term. Britain promised last week to hold Taylor in jail, and drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing his transfer to the Netherlands for trial
I wrote a post last month when Charles Taylor was arrested in regard that it would not be better for Taylor to be tried in a neighboring African country instead of the ICC. The governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone expressed fear that a trial at home could mount another insurgency in the fragile region. Taylor could be the first African leader convicted by an international court if found guilty of these crimes.
This is a major step for the young court in its first trial of a former head of state. To avoid the mistakes in Slobodan Milosevic’s trial, it is important for the ICC to study the failures of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) as it enters this new phase.
The former Serbian president was charged with war crimes and genocide during the Balkan wars. It’s hard not to think of Milosevic’s prosecution as a massive failure given that he died in his cell before his trial ended. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent bringing him to justice could’ve gone to rebuilding the Balkans. Is a trial without a verdict a waste of time and money?
Milosevic’s death was bad news for international criminal justice. But there’s more to a trial than securing a conviction. The underlying idea that those who commit crimes against humanity won’t escape unpunished is too important to be set back by one death. For all the trial’s weaknesses, there are lessons to be learned as prosecutors work to send a powerful message to Africa’s despots—no one is above the law.
First, states that have agreed to the principles of the ICC must honor its commitments. This means not hindering prosecution. The Serbian government in Belgrade didn’t hand over key figures or evidence. Even pressure from the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. and European Union failed to get Belgrade’s cooperation. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leaders charged with organizing the Srebrenica massacres in July 1995, are still at large.
During Taylor’s quest for power, money and control of the iron ore and diamond mines in West Africa, an estimated 500,000 people died in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone. He backed a rebel movement whose campaign was marked by civilian killings, rapes, amputations and recruitment of child soldiers.
The Liberian government must allow prosecutors and investigators safe access to the region, where armed groups are still active. Evidence is already available as many civilians witnessed these crimes being committed. They saw their neighbors shot, burned in their homes, hacked to death or killed while trying to escape. Some victims have the initials of the Taylor-backed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) carved on their bodies.
A generation of children were kidnapped and turned into soldiers. Taylor, known as “Pappy” to these kids, would force them to murder their parents, load them with methamphetamines to keep their killing instincts sharp and allow them to rape and plunder as a form of payment. Access to these witnesses and evidence will enhance the authority of the court.
Another lesson learned from the ICTY is not to be flexible with a defendant’s choice to refuse counsel and represent himself. Milosevic was a tough defendant who treated the court with contempt. His defense was highly dramatic and political. His statements often had very little to do with the charges against him. Saddam Hussein is using similar tactics in his seemingly endless trial. The ICC can avoid an unnecessarily lengthy and costly trial by insisting Taylor have a co-counsel whom he can not fire.
The third lesson for the ICC is to reduce the number of charges against the defendant. Taylor faces 11 counts of war crimes. Prosecutors should not exceed this for now. The ICTY prosecutors and judges share the blame for Milosevic’s trial dragging on for four years. They combined three separate indictments related to alleged crimes in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia for a total of 66 counts. This resulted in volumes of testimony, documentation and witness accounts making the allegations even more difficult to prove.
If Milosevic had three separate trials focused on major crimes where his responsibility was unmistakable, there would have been a better chance for conviction in at least one of them by the time he died. Limiting the initial number of charges ensures speedier proceedings. Charges to include other atrocities for Taylor can be added later.
To admit serious flaws does not deny Milosevic’s trial its important legacies. Like the Nuremberg trials 60 years ago, it brought worldwide attention to genocide, gave voice to the suffering and pain of its victims and established legal accountability for a state’s actions. The death of Milosevic and Taylor’s lawyers calling for a dismissal of his trial should not be an occasion to raise doubt but to continue in the principles embodied in international criminal law.
The ICC cannot fail in its efforts to prosecute Taylor. If the ICC allows a delay in justice it will diminish the court in the world’s eyes where the rule of the gun is seen as more powerful than the rule of the law.