The conviction of Charles Taylor last week prompted mixed scenes of celebration and outrage across Liberia – the country he ruled with an iron first, and Sierra Leone – the country he brutalised by facilitating the murderous Revolutionary United Front (RUF) insurgency from 1991 to 2002.
His role in the conflict was never in any real doubt; it has long been known that Taylor channelled blood diamonds for the RUF, provided them with arms and allowed them onto Liberian territory even when the extent of their brutality against Sierra Leone’s population was clear. Yet seeing him found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for Sierra Leone (ICTSR) will bring at least some closure to the tens of thousands of civilians who had to endure the RUF’s murders, amputations, child-abductions and torture.
It also marks an historic moment for international justice.
For this is the first time that any individual has been convicted by an international tribunal for crimes committed as a serving head of state. It has been a long time coming: the milestone was almost reached six years ago when Slobodan Milosevic came before The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), but the Serbian tyrant escaped justice when he was found dead shortly before a verdict was passed. Taylor met no such mortal reprieve and faces imminent transfer to a British jail cell.
The verdict sends a powerful message that no one is above the law and that even years after their abuses, leaders can still be held accountable for their crimes. It builds upon other significant developments this year including International Criminal Court’s (ICC) first ever verdict –against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, and senior Khmer Rouge leader Duch’s life imprisonment by a UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Cambodia.
Of course despite such notable advance, international justice is still in its infancy, patchily applied and unlikely to deter murderous tyrants such as Bashar al-Assad or King Hamad, at least not in the immediate future. Those who want to go even further and see leaders such as George Bush arrested under international law have still less chance.
Nevertheless, indicted individuals such as Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir may be sleeping somewhat less easily in the wake of Taylor’s conviction. International justice is beginning to show some teeth and likely to continue along this path as the trials of criminals such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic progress.
The prospect of life behind bars may be far more appealing than the grisly end met by Taylor’s old comrade Colonel Gaddafi… but it poses a further threat to the world’s dictators in a period that is looking ever more unfriendly to them.