‘International justice’ is no justice at all

An international court's trial of ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor dents the democratic rights of West Africans.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos

Topics World

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Last week, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was found guilty by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) of aiding and abetting war crimes committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone. He was acquitted of ‘personal involvement’ in the same crimes. The indictment related to the activities of the Revolutionary United Front and the Charles Taylor Patriotic Front of Liberia in the course of their attempt to overthrow the elected government of Sierra Leone in 1991. This triggered an 11-year civil war, which left in the region of 50,000 Sierra Leoneans dead.

This makes Taylor, who was president of neighbouring Liberia during the course of the civil war in Sierra Leone, the first African head of state to be indicted and tried before an international tribunal. Consequently, many in the West see the conviction as a victory for international justice. Elise Kepler of Human Rights Watch called it a ‘victory for Sierra Leonean victims’ which shows that even those at ‘the highest levels’ of African governments could be held to account by international courts. Brenda Hollis, the current chief prosecutor of the court, said: ‘Today is for the people of Sierra Leone who suffered horribly at the hands of Charles Taylor and his proxy forces.’

In reality, the Charles Taylor case had nothing to do with the ‘people of Sierra Leone’. In fact, the existence of the special court for Sierra Leone has lifted any say about the future of Taylor out of the hands of the people of Sierra Leone and, perhaps more importantly, out of the hands of the people of Liberia over whom Taylor was ruling as a democratic representative when he was indicted in 2003.

Take a look at the ‘special’ court that has been trying Taylor. Only four of the 12 judges currently residing in the SCSL were appointed from the judiciary of Sierra Leone. The rest were appointed by the UN from other countries. The chief prosecutor, who decides who gets prosecuted by the court, is appointed by the secretary-general of the UN. And every chief prosecutor in the court’s history has been either from the UK or the United States. The role of deputy chief prosecutor, which is selected by the government of Sierra Leone, is currently vacant. All the talk of ‘justice for the people of Sierra Leone’ overlooks the fact that it is the elite of Western legal society which makes the decisions at the special court, without any democratic recourse to the people of Sierra Leone whatsoever.

Indeed, it was a fear of the Sierra Leonean people which led the UN to order that the trial be transferred away from Freetown in Sierra Leone in 2006 and relocated at the buildings of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. At the time, the chief prosecutor issued a statement saying that the transfer was necessary because Taylor’s continued presence in Sierra Leone was an ‘impediment to stability and a threat to the peace’. This suggests that even the UN acknowledged that Taylor still had supporters among the people of Sierra Leone.

The celebration of this verdict should also be considered in light of the fact that decisions made by the SCSL have had a destabilising impact on the region of West Africa in the past. When Taylor was initially indicted by the court in June 2003, Liberia was in the midst of its own civil war. Taylor himself was attempting to negotiate with Liberian rebels. The decision to brandish Taylor a criminal over the course of those negotiations led an emboldened Liberian rebel army to dissolve negotiations and renew attacks on the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Many commentators pointed out at the time that the decision to indict Taylor during the sensitive negotiations was ‘ill timed’ and prolonged the Liberian civil war.

The reality is that the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia have been ignored throughout the trial of Charles Taylor. The assumption behind the existence of the SCSL is the same assumption that justifies all international courts: that some leaders are better dealt with by Western lawyers than by the people of the countries over which they held sway. The assumption is that complex political conflicts, involving the clash of interests and the dynamic forces of history, should be reduced to footnotes in the ring-bound dossiers of the court and presented to an appointed judge to rule over. The fact that the UN and Western NGOs are now trying to present this as a victory for ‘the people’ is a joke. In fact it is only a victory for the Western legal teams who have won a stake in the future of West Africa.

As Charles Taylor begins a lengthy prison sentence at Belmarsh in south London, thousands of miles from Liberia where he held office, we should push for the abolition of all international courts and the anti-democratic notion of justice they propagate. Perhaps then ‘the people’ of the countries over which these courts currently rule will have a bit more freedom to determine their futures.

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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Topics World


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