Let Africa try the warlord Charles Taylor
By John E. Leigh
The arraignment of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown is a welcome development in Africa's struggle against injustice, warlord impunity and the criminalization of state power. But Taylor's forthcoming war crimes trial should not be transferred to The Hague, Netherlands, as Liberia's president and the court itself have requested.
Such a transfer would defeat a principal purpose behind the establishment of the special court in Sierra Leone — namely, to teach Africans, firsthand and in their own countries, the fundamentals of justice and to drive home the democratic principle that no one is above the law. The special court has the potential to help raise West Africa's standards for accountability, transparency, fairness and the humane treatment of defendants.
In countries where might makes right, demonstrating the proper administration of justice can be an unbeatable nation-building tool. This is a key part of what the special court was set up to do and has done quite well in Sierra Leone since it commenced operations in late 2002.
Sierra Leone is still unstable, reeling from the consequences of a civil war that Taylor fueled by providing arms and training to violent insurgents. We continue to suffer from poor governance, profound poverty and superstitious beliefs — the very weaknesses Taylor exploited in his plunder of Sierra Leone and Liberia. If impunity and the criminal abuse of state power are not contained, progress in parts of Africa, including Sierra Leone, will be stymied for years to come.
On the other hand, witnessing the proper administration of justice will render us Africans better able to protect our rights and more reliant on democratic principles, rather than on superstitious beliefs. Our leaders, seeing one of their own called to account for his crimes before the bar of justice in Sierra Leone, may come to understand that there are consequences for abusing power.
Popular perception in Africa is that conditions abroad are far superior to those at home. Spiriting the real kingpin among those charged with war crimes away to Europe, while his fellow accused are tried locally, would send a message to Taylor's admirers that the world deems him too big a fish to be tried locally. To such people, Taylor's transfer abroad would seem like favoritism rendered to one of the most brutal of warlords out of perverse respect for the extreme horrors he perpetrated.
In order to drive home the true benefits of properly administered justice, Taylor and his fellow defendants should be held in the same humid place of detention, given the same food and tried by the same judges in the same courthouse nearest the scene of his crimes. All this should take place in plain view of Taylor's victims.
Taylor's lawyer, Vincent Nmehielle, wants the court to believe that his client would like to be tried in Sierra Leone. Those of us who are familiar with Taylor's tactics know better. He is hoping that if he pretends to prefer being tried in Sierra Leone, the court will be more motivated to ship him to Europe instead.
A practiced escape artist, Taylor knows he is better off in Europe than in Sierra Leone, where thousands of people would happily administer vigilante justice. Any escape from the protection of the U.N. detention center in Freetown would be a death sentence.
True, fears that Taylor's trial in Freetown could cause instability in Sierra Leone, Liberia and elsewhere in the region have substantial merit. There are thousands of former combatants, including many Taylor loyalists and admirers, walking the streets and byways of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. Some even hold public office in Liberia. Many of these people are disenchanted with the status quo, and it is quite possible that they could turn again to violence.
But the solution is not to rob Africans of the experience of seeing real justice administered to their most powerful tormentor. Potential instability should be addressed not by pandering to thuggish elements but by tightening security in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, under a robust U.N. peacemaking mandate.
There are already enough forces in the area to accomplish this. In 2000 and 2001, the United States spent $100 million to train at least seven battalions of a West African multinational force to help secure the peace in Sierra Leone. In addition, there are British-trained security forces in Sierra Leone and 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia. The international community should further let it be known that if any group seeks to interfere with the trial by orchestrating violence in support of Taylor, its leaders will be subject to indictment themselves.
The benefits of trying Taylor in Freetown far outweigh the costs of activating internationally trained security forces to help maintain short-term stability in the region. And rather than concerning itself with trying Taylor in Europe, the world should get active in securing a suitable place for the long-term incarceration of Africa's most notorious warlord should he be convicted.
Sierra Leone may not be stable enough to provide such a place on its own today. But the only way it will get there is if its people are permitted to see justice done at home.
John E. Leigh served as Sierra Leone's ambassador to the United States from 1996 through 2002. He wrote this commentary for The New York Times.