In the sorry catalogue of African dictators, former Liberian warlord and president Charles Taylor stands out as one of the most ruthless. And now he has another distinction: He’s the first former head of state – African or otherwise – to be indicted, tried and found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague before his trial ended. Indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has yet to face a judge. But Mr. Taylor went the full distance when his sentence was handed down on Thursday in The Hague by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Getting to a verdict was far from simple. Mr. Taylor’s indictment was announced in 2003 while he was in Ghana attending “peace” negotiations. He scuttled back to Liberia, where he presided over one of the worst humanitarian calamities in a decade, before being forced into an ignominious Nigerian exile. When democratically elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked for his extradition in 2006, Mr. Taylor fled again. He was finally caught in a car full of cash, trying to cross the Nigerian border into Cameroon.
Mr. Taylor began his rampage in 1989. Over the next seven years, 150,000 Liberians died and more than 850,000 became refugees. This in a country that had only 2.1 million people in 1990. Mr. Taylor finally won a United Nations-brokered presidential election in 1997 because Liberians knew that if he didn’t, the mayhem would continue.
But none of that is why he was tried. He was indicted for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone by a gang of murderers who called themselves the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF was led by a psychopath named Foday Sankoh, who had trained with Mr. Taylor in happier times at Moammar Gadhafi’s school for terrorists in Benghazi. Later, from Liberia, Mr. Taylor backed the RUF with a base, a safe haven, training, weapons and instructions. And the RUF brought him something from Sierra Leone: diamonds.
Sierra Leone’s diamonds are among the best in the world and, for Mr. Taylor, they were an ideal way to pay for the weapons needed for his proxy wars across the region. Liberia, with almost no diamonds of its own, became one of the world’s most flagrant diamond laundries. Internationally, diamonds were completely unregulated at the time and, until an NGO – Partnership Africa Canada – exposed the numbers in 2000, it never occurred to anyone in the industry to question why as much as an astounding $2-billion a year worth of gems were making the trip from Liberia to Antwerp. Diamonds had become a guerrilla’s best friend.
The RUF said it was fighting for democracy, but it waged a war against civilians. It cleared the towns where they foraged – and the diamond fields – through a reign of terror, hacking off the hands and feet of women and children as a means of clearing the areas they wanted. If you saw Lord of War or Blood Diamond, you saw a seriously sanitized version of what actually happened during a conflict that lasted twice as long as the Second World War. The war in Sierra Leone was not about democracy or ethnicity or religion or remnant scraps from some Cold War contretemps; it was about power and the unbridled savagery of the drug-addled thugs who wanted it.
The Taylor trial has been criticized for being too long and too expensive. It began in January of 2008, and closing arguments were heard in March of 2011. It has taken the judges a year to reach their verdict. Mr. Taylor and his lawyers have argued that the witnesses who travelled to The Hague – many of them victims of the atrocities he fomented – were right-wing liars, left-wing liars, damned liars and racists. Some have argued that Mr. Taylor is a scapegoat, that he and the other dozen indictees – all now imprisoned after their own guilty verdicts – are the fall guys for a much wider group of players in the bloody criminal enterprise that took place in Sierra Leone.
But in a world where soldiers often claim they were only following orders, it’s a rare luxury to see one of those who gave the orders brought to justice. And in Africa, where so much cruelty is met with international indifference, where impunity is too often the order of the day for too many monsters, the Taylor trial and his conviction stand out as a landmark, and perhaps as a beacon of hope for a future in which justice can prevail.
Ian Smillie, an Ottawa-based consultant and writer, was the first witness at Charles Taylor’s trial. He is the author of Blood on the Stone: Greed, Corruption and War in the Global Diamond Trade.
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