Ingrid Burke for the Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI)

In the minds of many, any mention of the Sierra Leone conflict conjures brutal images of innocent civilians with hacked off limbs, young boys with blank stares clutching AK-47s, and other such unspeakable horrors. The campaign of terror waged by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) throughout the 1990s in Sierra Leone has scarred an entire nation and has stained the conscience of an international community that failed to adequately intervene when these atrocities were at their worst. While the years of bloodshed cannot be reversed, some comfort can be found in the efforts of both the government of Sierra Leone and the international community to fight against impunity and to exact justice on the perpetrators of these crimes. Toward that end, a major victory was achieved on Thursday when the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) held former Liberian president Charles Taylor guilty for aiding and abetting in the commission of 11 acts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international humanitarian law.

In so holding, the SCSL made clear that no one - not even heads of state - can expect immunity from prosecution for violations of international criminal and humanitarian law.

While the international legal community and the general public alike have broadly lauded the ruling as a major victory for international justice and human rights, critics continue to question the legitimacy of a system of criminal justice that seems inextricably bound to political bias. To seek clarity on these issues, we have reached out to experts with strong ties to the Taylor trial for their opinions on the verdict, its implication on international justice, its impact on the victims of the atrocities at issue, and on what lies ahead for the field of international criminal law.

The verdict

There is no doubt that the verdict was a major victory for the prosecution and a major triumph for international criminal law. David M. Crane, former and founding SCSL Chief Prosecutor, praised the verdict as “a clarion bell that rang loudly across the world that warns tyrants that they can't kill their own citizens or others.” Charles C. Jalloh, former SCSL defense counsel to Taylor, described the verdict as “a major victory for the Prosecution, acting on behalf of the many victims of the war in Sierra Leone in what is said to be one of the worst civil conflicts in recent history.” Jalloh went on to describe the impact of the verdict for the international community as, “a vindication to the efforts to help Sierra Leone out of conflict without compromising justice.”

Jalloh made clear that the prosecution suffered a blow in the court’s holding that Taylor aided and abetted the RUF actions in Sierra Leone, but did not command or control any such actions, noting, “it cannot be denied that this is a major loss for the Prosecution, which had always insisted that Taylor was effectively in charge of running the [RUF] rebels and therefore should be held responsible for their actions amounting to international crimes in Sierra Leone. The Court made the observation that while Taylor had a substantial or considerable influence over the RUF leadership at various times… there were times that his instructions or advice was not even heeded by those individuals.”

However, when asked if he thought that the verdict was sufficient, Crane enthusiastically replied, “Yes. This is a beginning of a beginning towards more specific accountability for heads of state.”

The impact of the verdict on the people of Sierra Leone

Justice cannot be carried out in isolation of the victims of the crimes being adjudicated. Integral to any international justice effort is a desire to strengthen the nation or region impacted by the events at issue.

When asked how the verdict will likely impact the victims of the atrocities carried out by the RUF, Jalloh explained, “Although it does not mean that the thousands of Sierra Leoneans who died will be resurrected, or that those whose limbs were amputated will get their limbs back, or that those who were raped will feel whole instead of violated again, it does mean that some of those bearing the greatest responsibility for what happened to them, like Taylor, have been held to account in a court of law after a fair trial meeting all the guarantees of due process under international human rights law. For the people of Sierra Leone, this ultimately says that a measure of justice can be served, even against the most powerful individuals, including a former head of state, so long as they perpetrate havoc amounting to international crimes. At a symbolic level, it says that the international community cared enough about what happened to them in Sierra Leone to set up the Special Court for Sierra Leone to try the people who were responsible for the crimes committed against them.”

On this note, Crane added, “I walked the countryside in my outreach program listening to the people of Sierra Leone and they told me what Charles Taylor had done to them. It was a horror story… You must have justice to have sustainable peace. That has begun for Sierra Leone… They will begin to understand that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun.”

Politicization of International Criminal Law

As noted above, a key criticism of international criminal law efforts is that of the inevitable politicization of the process. International criminal justice is invoked by major atrocities. Major atrocities, as a rule, involve government authorities in the region at issue, and attract the attention of government authorities around the world. It is thus unrealistic to expect any international criminal process to be entirely free of political influence. Taylor’s defense team focused very pointedly on this issue in its final brief for the SCSL, claiming that the defendant was the victim of prosecutorial political bias.

When asked about the politicization of international criminal law in general, Crane explained, “The system is not perfect by any means; however, the cost of deterring tyrants who kill their own citizens is worth it. Politics is the bright red thread of modern international criminal law… the courts and tribunals have politics in their DNA as they are creatures of political events and compromise. One must use politics to ensure justice for the victims within the bounds of ethics. There was no victors’ justice, just justice fairly and openly done.”

He further touched on the issue with specific regard to Taylor’s prosecution, stating, “There was no politics in indicting Charles Taylor for the crimes he committed. There was politics used to get Taylor turned over for a fair and open trial.”

Blood diamonds

Jalloh drew our attention to one very important facet of the verdict: the court’s acknowledgment of the role of blood diamonds in the Sierra Leone conflict. In the summary of its judgment, the SCSL trial chamber stated that Taylor, “instructed the [rebels] to capture Kono, and subsequently advised them to hold and re-capture it, as a source of revenue through diamonds that could be used to secure arms and ammunition.” Jalloh explained, “The role of diamonds in the Sierra Leone war was critical. The Chamber found that Taylor provided weapons… and that these were used to perpetrate murder, rape and other crimes… The Chamber’s summary indicated that Taylor received diamonds in return, sometimes as a sort of payment, and at others, to hold in safekeeping for the RUF rebels. So, yes, diamonds were used to help fuel the conflict in Sierra Leone, and today’s judgment underscores the correctness of that position by the historians who have argued it.”

What lies ahead for International Criminal Law

The SCSL is a hybrid court. This means that it was established and operated by the joint efforts of the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations. This model contrasts that of the ad-hoc tribunals formed to adjudicate the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. While the hybrid and ad-hoc models are based on the same legal principles, deriving from Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the former heavily relies on the contribution of the nation or region directly affected by the atrocities at issue, while the latter is carried out exclusively by the international community.

It is telling that although the SCSL was established years later than the ad-hoc tribunals, it is on track to being the first modern international tribunal to complete its mandate. This places the SCSL in stark contrast to the ad-hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia insofar as the latter two have repeatedly appealed for extensions of their mandates and for budgetary assistance in order to carry out their obligations. Overall, the hybrid model, also utilized by Cambodia and Lebanon, appears better suited to the goals of international criminal law than the ad-hoc model, due both to its direct collaboration with the nation at issue in a given conflict and to its temporal and budgetary efficiency.

This is not to say that the ad-hoc tribunals have failed in their efforts to fight impunity and exact justice on those responsible for atrocities under the scope of their jurisdiction. To the contrary, the ad-hoc tribunals likely laid the groundwork for the success of their hybrid successors. For all intents and purposes, the ad-hoc model was the first system utilized for the purpose of international criminal justice since the Nuremburg trials in the fallout of World War II. As a result of their novelty, a certain amount of inefficiency was inevitable. The ad-hoc tribunals have been invaluable in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that their drawbacks were taken into account in the establishment of the hybrid model.

On this note, Crane added, “[International criminal law is evolving toward] the Chapter VII hybrid model, the ad hoc concept is dead...too expensive and inefficient. Other than the International Criminal Court, the future of international criminal law is the SCSL (hybrid) model and/or domestic legal systems.”

When all is said and done, this much is certain: years of adjudication carried out by the joint efforts of the government of Sierra Leone and the international community have led to the conviction of a head of state for aiding and abetting acts that have devastated a nation. Politics were an inevitable byproduct of the proceedings by virtue of their despicable roots. However, both sides of the trial agree that the defendant was afforded due process and that the proceedings were in line with the international standards of human rights. Ultimately, a tyrant is behind bars and an invaluable precedent has been set: no one is immune to international justice. We have yet to hear a criticism of the international criminal law process that undermines these major achievements, both for the people of Sierra Leone and for the international community at large.