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Keep the heat on Taylor

By Michelle Greene / August 22, 2003



CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Liberia may be free from its infamous president, Charles Taylor, but this indicted war criminal was not transported to where he belongs: behind bars. Instead, Mr. Taylor received a red carpet welcome and a hilltop mansion in Nigeria.

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Ousting Taylor from Liberia is not enough. He must be held accountable for his crimes and stand trial before a United Nations-backed court in Sierra Leone, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. Allowing Taylor to escape responsibility defies international law, undermines Sierra Leone's Special Court, and sets a troubling precedent. It also ensures that Taylor's parting promise - "I'll be back" - will continue to cast an ominous shadow over any potential peace in the region.

Sierra Leone bears the scars of the nation's brutal, decade-long civil war at the hands of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), armed and trained by Taylor. In June, the indictment of Charles Taylor by the Special Court - a hybrid international tribunal created by the UN and the Sierra Leonean government - provided a ray of hope that true accountability and justice might finally prevail.

Taylor is charged with "bearing the greatest responsibility" for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers during Sierra Leone's war. He traded arms for diamonds, reaping profits while strengthening the RUF.

The war in Sierra Leone is infamous for its atrocities, made evident at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. A few weeks ago, I heard a woman recount a tragically typical tale: RUF rebels came to her home and mutilated and murdered her husband, father, and young infant. They herded her extended family into the house and set it on fire. They all died in the flames. She was made a sex slave and repeatedly raped over many years. Now she has AIDS, three young children, and no way to care for them. There are scores of similar stories.

In a widespread form of terror, the RUF repeatedly hacked off the limbs of civilians - including babies. Thousands of children were abducted and countless villages were destroyed. The nation's infrastructure was decimated. While other groups participated in the brutality, the RUF systematically committed many of the worst offenses. From the first incursion that started the war in 1991, fighters loyal to Taylor were implicated. Since 2001, Taylor has been under UN sanctions for continuing to trade in Sierra Leone's "blood diamonds," which financially supported the rebels. The war would not have lasted so long or have been so brutal without Taylor's support.

The Special Court's proceedings, still in the indictment and investigatory stage, are just beginning to have a real impact - not only in terms of an important sense of potential justice for victims, but also as a deterrent. One human rights expert recounted that, following Taylor's indictment, rebels in Liberia started asking questions about what constitutes a "child soldier" to ensure that they were not committing war crimes for which they might later be held liable. Immunity for Taylor would undermine this growing notion of accountability, setting the disturbing precedent that becoming a big enough impediment to peace can be a path to amnesty.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) played a prominent role in forcing Taylor's departure. This is not only a first step toward peace, but may mark an important break from the past reluctance of African presidents to criticize or interfere with fellow leaders. Although politically difficult, it would be an even more promising step forward for ECOWAS leaders to demand that Taylor stand trial before the Special Court.

The US was loud in its calls for Taylor's departure from Liberia, but notably silent on the issue of accountability. President Bush should demand that Charles Taylor stand trial in Sierra Leone and encourage the UN to empower the Special Court so that UN member states are compelled to obey its orders - including the international arrest warrant for Charles Taylor.

President Bush has said repeatedly that terrorists must be brought to justice. He should demand no less for indicted African war criminals like Charles Taylor.

Michelle Greene is the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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