TThe trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor has moved into a critical phase in a session of the Special Court for Sierra Leone at The Hague. The occasion, taking place in a room rented from the International Criminal Court, was striking for the presence of the first African leader to be present in the dock for war crimes. Charges levelled against him were dismissed by the indignant protagonist as ‘disinformation, misinformation, lies and rumours.’ Taylor, he was at pains to emphasise, had been an advocate of justice, the visionary peacemaker struggling with momentous historical circumstances. He was certainly no ‘common street thug.’
More than that, the defense case rests on the failure of the prosecution to adduce evidence linking the alleged crimes committed in Sierra Leone with Taylor’s leadership. Critical gaps, they have suggested, exist in the evidentiary record. It was impossible to show a link to any of the charges made: planning, instigating, ordering, committing, aiding, abetting, the joint criminal enterprise or command responsibility. Taylor, it was said, could hardly have played a substantial role in the January 1999 invasion of Freetown, or the vast complement of atrocities he is said to have been complicit in.
His arguments, clearly even eloquently framed, are the perennial ones of the leader who denies the issue of control and responsibility in command. The line was almost contemptuously dismissed by the US courts in the case of the Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita, a precedent some jurists have regretted. The Supreme Court, and an American public hungering for blood, would have found an acquittal of such a figure impossible to countenance. A rather far flung interpretation of the doctrine of command responsibility was formulated, placing the blame squarely on the doomed Tiger of Malaya. Chaos, severed communications and a lack of control do not erase responsibility for the acts of those under your command.
This ghastly dilemma, which has gifted the African continent more villains than hot meals, is one that Taylor is deeply mired in. He had himself led a rebellion as leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) against President Samuel K. Doe, citing electoral theft as a key justification. Taylor had also taken the initiative to involve himself with RUF leader Foday Sankoh and that leadership in Sierra Leone, arguing that a common enemy, the United Liberation Movement of Democracy, needed defeating. The prosecutors have seized upon the link, claiming that Taylor had received diamonds from RUF rebels for guns and ammunition, encouraging him to be complicit in acts of pillage, rape, enslavement and terror. One witness testified that the stones had been carried in a cleansed mayonnaise jar.
The trial may allow yet another showman to display the strength of oratory before a legal process that risks falling flat. The time to get through 249 defence witnesses, not to mention weeks of testimony, presents that possibility. There is little doubt that such tribunals have their merit, though they prove more effective with functionaries without charisma or a sense of timing. Such accused make better fare for legal precedent than colourful, self-aggrandising thespians in the dock. The trial risks becoming a pulpit for Taylor’s rather loud visions for Africa. Whether the trial escapes this politicisation or is allowed to stand as a legal precedent for African leaders will be a true test for the Tribunal.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org