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Charles Taylor sentencing brings world closer to humanitarian vision of justice

Erna Paris, author of The Sun Climbs Slow.

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Fifty years in prison. To receive his sentence, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was ordered to stand before the judges of the special court that had been convened to try him. Only a small involuntary movement of his lower lip marked the moment he understood the news.

A mass murderer on his feet before the law. Such stark symbolism. The man who issued countless orders to kill, rape and mutilate human beings of all ages as he cleared a bloody trail to the diamond patch, the man who believed himself untouchable and boasted of his invincibility, had collided with the latest piece of the global system – a court of international criminal justice – and lost. His conviction and severe sentence strengthened the emerging consensus across the world that high-placed perpetrators of crimes against humanity will no longer automatically be appeased with amnesties and plane rides to safe refuge. The once undreamed-of possibility that the victims of these appalling crimes might one day know justice also was strengthened at the very moment Mr. Taylor's lower lip quivered.

We are witnessing change, but the underlying elements are not new. In fact, a fundamental conflict has been taking place in the global sphere that you are unlikely to read about in your daily newspaper. It is a meta quarrel over the meaning of justice and rights that has been with humanity since the beginnings of recorded history.

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Beyond the boundaries of complex historical events, it is possible to pick out the strands of this lasting quarrel. On one side sits the ancient conviction that might makes right; the belief that the power available to a state is the only moral determinant when a government decides to pursue its interests. This view, first expressed as a philosophical doctrine in ancient Greece, was confirmed centuries later with the signing of the famous Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which concluded that international relations would henceforth be conducted between independent sovereign states. What leaders did was no one else's business, except in rare circumstances where the interests of others were threatened.

This philosophy is also rooted in world literature (think Machiavelli) and naturally in history itself (the most recent eruption being George W. Bush's Iraq war in 2003, even though the president reached for justifications). Perhaps it is history as taught in schools around the globe.

But there has always been an opposing partner in this ancient jousting match, though far less visible: the equally strong conviction that human society must be governed by universally binding norms. Here, too, the continuum of philosophy and literature goes back to the ancient Greeks and was bolstered centuries later. In the 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant published his influential theory of cosmopolitanism, better known today as multilateralism. Kant believed that universal measures are the indispensable backbone of peace. If there is a United Nations today, as hampered as the Security Council is by interest-based vetoes, it is because Kant and other moderns seized upon the work of earlier thinkers and propelled the idea of universal standards into greater acceptance. The trajectory has not been steady, heaven knows, but there has been progress, in fits and starts.

Nothing is more "Kantian" than the new international criminal courts whose mandate is to confront the impunity that perpetrators of atrocities have historically enjoyed. Mr. Taylor, standing before his judges drawn from around the world, was tried and convicted according to fair standards of due process. Just two decades ago, no one would have believed this possible.

The international tribunals operating in the world today have plenty of problems. They lack a police force with which to effect arrests; they are short of funding; too many perpetrators of mass atrocities are still at large; they are judicial institutions operating within the seething maelstrom of international politics. And yet, they are increasingly successful.

Does this suggest a shift in the old quarrel between might makes right and a more humanitarian vision of justice? Possibly, although if history is a guide, this could be merely temporary.

What we can say with certitude is that 20th-century mass murderers such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot died comfortably in their beds of natural causes; and that in the 21st century, mass murderer Osama bin Laden was assassinated extra-judicially.

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Mr. Taylor, by contrast, will die in prison after a trial that created a factual record of his deeds and sent out a message of change. His fate, not that of the others, moves the world an incremental step away from Machiavelli and toward a Kantian vision of justice.

Erna Paris is an author and the 2012 recipient of the World Federalist Movement Canada World Peace Award.

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