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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Former Liberian President Gets 50 Years for War Crimes

In the 50 year sentence handed to  former Liberian president Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone meeting at the Hague on May 30, 2012, the world came one step closer to being able to hold dictators accountable for war crime atrocities that go even beyond the violation of basic human rights. In particular, the prosecutor described, "The purposely cruel and savage crimes committed included public executions and amputations of civilians, the display of decapitated heads at checkpoints, the killing and public disembowelment of a civilian whose intestines were then stretched across the road to make a check point, public rapes of women and girls, and people burned alive in their homes.” Insisting that he never knowingly assisted in the crimes, Taylor claimed that what he did “was done with honor.” He maintained that he had been “convinced that unless there was peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia would not be able to move forward.” Nevertheless, that he paid thugs in blood diamonds for the crimes means that he could be held accountable for the misdeeds themselves.

Of particular note, the conviction was the first of a former head of state since WWII. The judge stressed that the “special status of Mr. Taylor as a head of state puts him in a different category of offenders for the purpose of sentencing.” The judge added that the crimes were of the “utmost gravity in terms of scale and brutality. The lives of many more innocent civilians in Sierra Leone were lost or destroyed as a direct result of his actions.” That Taylor did not carry out the atrocities himself, as in raping a daughter while the father is forced to watch, or disemboweling a man so his intestines can be used at a border crossing, does not detract from his culpability. Yet the distance from the crimes themselves enabled Taylor to show (and presumably feel) no remorse as the sentence was being handed down. To be sure, he cannot be forced to recognize the sordidness of his role or feel contrition. Cognitive dissidence and sociopathic blockage of conscience can permanently forestall such a reckoning.

Even if the defendant never “gets the message” on account of his sociopathy, the world came one step closer to telling sitting heads of government around the world that they had better be careful not to violate others’ human rights lest they too find themselves spending decades in a cell. Yet more is needed to make this deterrent a reality. 

Because the court that convicted Taylor is not international, the International Criminal Court (ICC) could not be expected to benefit directly. Governments such as those in the United States that are not members of the International Criminal Court marginalize the court's legitimacy and effectiveness because the court's lack of jurisdiction suggests or implies that public officials can get away with violating human rights. Governments not subject to the ICC should be pressured to join (perhaps even as a condition for continued membership in the UN). Additionally, the ICC needs more power in being able to arrest indicted officials, whether in or out of office, in countries subject to the court.  The United Nations could draw from members' military forces to form a special force that could have access to the territory of any member for the specific purpose to arrest and transfer any former or sitting official indicted by the ICC. Economic and political sanctions would automatically kick in for any member refusing the special force such access. This would not apply to any UN members who are not also members of the ICC, though ideally every member of the UN would also be subject to the ICC. While such a system may seem unrealistic as of 2012, the proposal is at least possible. With the world heading in the right direction with respect to holding violators of human rights accountable, it is advisable that such proposals are explored and discussed lest the momentum be squandered in line with the self-interest of people like Charles Taylor. 


Marlise Simons and David Goodman, “Judge Gives Taylor 50 Years for ‘Heinous’ Crimes in War,” The New York Times, May 30, 2012.