Keep the peace or seek swift justice?

A too quick trial for Charles Taylor could trigger more violence in Liberia.

The sight last week of former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, handcuffed at a war-crimes court backed by the United Nations, has sent a powerful message around the world that tyrants and despots are not beyond the reach of law.

Mr. Taylor deserves to be tried and punished for the horrific cycles of violence he unleashed and fomented - not only in Liberia but around West Africa. His victims have every right to justice.

Yet in viewing this case through only this moral prism, observers may miss some of the more complex questions it represents. Not only for Liberia, but for war-scarred nations elsewhere who have struggled to come to grips with the violent legacy of their pasts while trying at the same time to build peaceful futures.

Leaders of many countries undergoing this difficult transition have questioned the wisdom of pushing too hard, too fast on the button of justice. They have raised legitimate concerns, in many cases, that trials or their prospect will risk reviving hatreds or driving warring parties away from the peace table.

For Liberia's courageous new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, seeking Taylor's extradition was an excruciating call. His exile in Nigeria was the basis of the peace deal that ended Liberia's civil war in 2003. His coming trial - whether in Sierra Leone or in The Hague - is raising jitters even as it elicits praise.

Some political observers have warned of a potential violent reaction from Taylor's supporters that might plunge Liberia and its neighborhood back into conflict. Only three years after the end of Liberia's civil war, it would be the last thing this poor and beleaguered nation needs.

So which should take precedent, peace or justice? And must one come at the expense of the other? Liberia is hardly alone around the world as a war-riven nation where the answers to these questions are playing out.

• The governments of East Timor and Indonesia, for example, have resisted a proposed international trial for the 1999 killings that marred the former's push for independence. Prosecutions would rekindle animosities, they've argued, threatening progress in forging reconciliation.

• In Colombia, a government peace offer to paramilitary fighters seeks to remove from that country's conflict one of its deadliest forces. But human rights officials have objected to the plan if it means granting impunity to the paramilitaries for their atrocities against civilians.

• In Afghanistan there have been calls for the warlords to be tried, but also warnings that this might undermine a fragile peace. Concerns were also expressed by some in Iraq, that the trial of Saddam Hussein would fuel sectarian tensions.

Though it has tried to help countries make the best choices in these circumstances, the international community has itself been conflicted. Those working in the diplomatic arena to bring warring parties into political agreements have clashed at times with human rights officials wary of any deals that would trade impunity for peace.

Helping to sharpen the apparent contradictions has been the recent emergence of new international institutions with mandates to bring war criminals to justice. These include the International Criminal Court and several special tribunals such as the one in Sierra Leone that indicted Charles Taylor and the UN court at The Hague where Slobodon Milosevic spent his final days.

Human rights organizations applauded when the ICC issued its first indictments last year against the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal rebel group in northern Uganda. However, those working to bring the insurgents into peace talks cautioned that the warrants might scuttle their chances.

While the agendas of peace and justice have come into conflict in many cases, the choices may not be as stark as they seem.

Human rights advocates increasingly acknowledge that justice need not be applied bluntly, like a sledgehammer, when doing so might imperil a fragile transition to peace or democracy.

Under an evolving doctrine of "transitional justice," prosecutions can be legitimately sequenced in over time, as peace begins to set down its roots. In other words, justice may be delayed for a limited time - provided it is not denied. Trials, moreover, are not viewed as the only answer, but one very important item on a broader menu of measures to deal with the past. These include truth commissions, reparations programs, and official proclamations of responsibility and remorse for abuses.

As a longtime diplomat and current head of the UN's peacemaking department, I can attest that views are also evolving within the diplomatic community. There is a growing realization that impunity is not only morally and politically unacceptable, but also proves to be a shaky foundation on which to build peace and democracy. UN peace envoys, for example, now operate under instructions to oppose agreements that would establish amnesties for genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity.

Though nobody can guarantee that future warlords and dictators will not find a way to slip through the hands of justice, I believe the space for such arrangements - both locally and internationally - is slowly and surely beginning to close.

The next big test is now before us in Liberia, whose president deserves unwavering support in the days ahead, now that she has taken the first bold step.

Ibrahim A. Gambari is the United Nations under-secretary-general for political affairs.

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