John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Charles Taylor Sentenced – a Step Forward?

by John Campbell
May 31, 2012

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor (bottom) argues with a photographer as he awaits the start of the prosecution's closing arguments during his trial at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam February 8, 2011. (Jerry Lampen/Courtesy Reuters)


In April, the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague found Charles Taylor guilty of many crimes against humanity related to his involvement with the civil war in Sierra Leone. (Taylor was not tried for his activities in Liberia where he was a major warlord as well as chief of state.) On May 30, three justices sentenced Taylor to prison for fifty years. As he is 64 years of age, he will spend the rest of his life incarcerated. He will serve his sentence in the UK.

The Samoan presiding judge was appointed by the government of Sierra Leone. The other two—one from Northern Ireland and one from Uganda—were appointed by the UN Secretary General. The reserve judge, also appointed by the Secretary General, is from Senegal.

Taylor’s conviction and sentencing will be widely viewed as a step toward ending the impunity of African “big men.” He is the first former chief of state to be tried, convicted, and sentenced by an international court since the post-World War II Nuremberg tribunal, and also the first African. Reflecting what is likely to be a widely held view among human rights activists, Human Rights Watch staffer Annie Gell commented that the verdict “marks a watershed for efforts to hold the highest level leaders accountable for the greatest crimes.”

Others will have reservations. Taylor’s defense barrister, the Jamaican-born Courtenay Griffiths, is a criminal lawyer, not a specialist in international law. In a media interview, he argues that the process and evidence were flawed, stating: “One of the things that I discovered…is that international criminal law is not about law at all. It’s all about the politics of power.”

There are other aspects of the Taylor trial likely to give Africans pause: it took place in The Hague—not in Africa; Taylor was not prosecuted for crimes committed in Liberia, raising the specter of selective prosecution; Taylor will serve his sentence in the UK, not in Sierra Leone; and of the three sentencing judges, only one is from Africa. There was also the curious episode at the sentencing, reported by the press, in which the reserve judge, El Hadji Malick Sow, apparently tried to interrupt the hearing to voice opposition, but his microphone was cut off. More generally, many Africans are concerned that all of the cases at present before the International Criminal Court (which in a sense is the successor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone) involve Africans. The press quotes Justice Sow as saying that the international justice system is “in grave danger of losing all credibility.”

For most of us, Taylor is a monster and justice has been done. But the criticisms voiced by Griffiths and others highlight the difficulties in creating a system of international jurisprudence—including procedures and evidentiary standards—that is in accordance both with justice and political reality. And at present, Justice Sow’s warning about Africans losing confidence in the international justice system must be a concern.

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  • Posted by Claudia E. Anyaso

    While I agree with Ambassador Campbell that there are flaws international jurisprudence, in the short term, I think the sentence puts other big men on notice and will perhaps cause them uneasy sleep. Let’s hope.

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