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Charles Taylor Conviction Is Reminder Of Necessity Of International Law

Francesca Bessey |
May 1, 2012 | 3:38 p.m. PDT

Staff Contributor

(Travlr, Creative Commons)
(Travlr, Creative Commons)
Last Thursday, in a rare feat of international justice, Charles Taylor, ex-Liberian president and warlord, was convicted by an international tribunal in The Hague of arming, supporting, and guiding a rebel movement responsible for countless gross atrocities committed in Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

Taylor's conviction marks the first time a head of state has been convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Given the substantial gap in time since then, the conviction of Taylor serves as an important reminder of the potential impact the global community can have on the need to bring to justice individuals who have terrorized not just entire nations, but entire regions of the world.

This impact, of course, necessitates the idea of international law. It's a tricky concept; states are independent of one another specifically because their citizenry do not wish to abide by the exact same set of rules. However, there are certain principles on which we should be able to agree.

Take the civil war in Sierra Leone, for example. The 2006 film "Blood Diamond" is the only exposure most Westerners have had to this godforsaken conflict. "Blood Diamond" follows the story of Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), who smuggles diamonds obtained from mines under the control of brutal rebel groups, to sell in the black market. Archer thus plays a major role in Sierra Leone's conflict diamond industry, the same industry that funds the purchase of guns and ammunition fueling the devastating war.

The film features gangs of child soldiers, kidnapped from their homes by the various warring groups, forced to watch their families and neighbors massacred, and indoctrinated to a life of grotesque violence through drug addiction. It shows rapes, murders, slavery, and the hacking off of hands and lips as an intimidation tactic.

While the hell depicted on the screen may repulse today's viewers, it was reality for the tens of thousands of men, women, and children killed, displaced, or mutilated in Sierra Leone's miserable eleven-year war. This was the war for which Charles Taylor, among others, was responsible. These were the atrocities he allowed to be committed when Liberia became involved in the conflict.

After 13 months of deliberation, judges from Ireland, Samoa, and Uganda found Taylor guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the prosecution was ultimately unsuccessful at proving that Taylor had directly commanded the rebels responsible for the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone. The prosecution faced a lack of concrete evidence, a problem that originates with the lack of a properly provisioned international entity to investigate and address cases such as these.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), as the tribunal was called, was created via a joint effort between Sierra Leone and the United Nations (UN), and received significant financial backing from Canada, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While this is an impressive accomplishment in itself, the world cannot count on the spontaneous assembly of international tribunals each and every time someone commits a mass human rights violation. It is counterproductive and logistically impossible.

What is needed is a comprehensive body of international law with global jurisdiction and the money and resources behind it to enforce that jurisdiction. The United Nations took a step in the right direction with the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002; however, the international community has yet to give the ICC the support it needs to arrest and try international criminals currently at-large.

The United States, for example, is one of 44 countries that refuses to recognize the authority of the ICC, a huge setback to the Court's international clout and a general obstacle to its already daunting agenda.

The wanted list of the ICC keeps growing, and while independent tribunals like the SCSL can be expected to pick up a small portion of the slack, the vast majority of some of humanity's most despicable individuals will slip through the gaping cracks created by impunity. The Court needs as much international leverage as it can possibly get, in order to gain access to nations where the head of state, as Charles Taylor once was, is the exact person they are looking to indict.

The conviction of Charles Taylor was a victory for proponents of human rights everywhere. But what about Omar Bashir, responsible for hundreds of thousands dead in Sudan's Darfur region and still the country's president? Or the infamous Joseph Kony? Or the dozens of other warlords and genocidaires who have demonstrated total disregard for human life? When will there be justice for their victims? Only when a body of international law is adequately equipped to dispense that justice.



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