Today’s conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor by the Special Court of Sierra Leone marked the first time a head of state has been convicted of egregious crimes by an international tribunal since the Nuremburg trials after World War II. Taylor’s conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity is a major milestone for international justice as it demonstrates that no one is above the law and sets a precedent that state leaders are not immune from prosecution.
During his presidency of Liberia from 1997 to 2003, Taylor provided sustained and significant support to Sierra Leonean rebel groups responsible for many atrocities during their county’s 11 year civil war, receiving conflict diamonds in return. Taylor stepped down as president in 2003, was indicted the same year by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and his trial commenced in June 2007. In all, Charles Taylor was found guilty of the war crimes of terrorizing civilians, murder, outrages on person dignity, cruel treatment, looting, and recruiting and using child soldiers; and the crimes against humanity of murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilating and beating and enslavement.
Justice in the face of atrocity is a critical component in achieving peace and ending the cycle of impunity that is so pervasive in many countries affected by conflict. It gives a voice to the tens of thousands silenced by the violence in Sierra Leone and could potentially deter some would-be perpetrators.
It is imperative that perpetrators of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity are brought to justice, irrespective of their rank. This conviction, therefore, is especially salient for leaders currently indicted by international courts such as the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, Côte d’Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. It also sends a clear signal to leaders like Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who is currently committing atrocities against his own people, that they could be next.
The success of the Special Court of Sierra Leone is incredibly important in bringing about healing in a country wracked by war for so many years. Although there are many more perpetrators of egregious crimes that have yet to be prosecuted, or even indicted, this conviction is an important step in ending the impunity rampant in conflict situations.