The conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor more than a decade after the war crimes he aided and abetted during the period 1996-2002 answers one important question about his role in the war in Sierra Leone: did he bear some responsibility for rebel atrocities, even if he did not command them directly or conspire to produce them? The court said yes, though an alternate judge held a dissenting view.
Judging from Helene Cooper’s graphic piece in the New York Times about her own family’s experiences, the conviction also provides an important occasion for victims. Even more than ten years after the fact, even though the indictment covered only crimes in Sierra Leone and not in Liberia, they take some satisfaction from knowing that justice has not been denied but only delayed.
But what does it do, and not do, to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity in the future? When Charles Taylor was indicted, it was widely believed that the court action would disrupt the then ongoing process of beginning the reconstruction of Liberia. Helene Cooper notes that he was tried for crimes in Sierra Leone rather than Liberia to avoid political problems that might have arisen in the country of which he was once president. So far as I can tell, these fears have proven unfounded. Charles Taylor is not today an important political factor in a Liberia that has made substantial progress in becoming a normal, functioning country, even if a frighteningly poor one.
Many diplomats bemoan the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of President Omar al Bashir of Sudan, because they say it makes him hold on to power more tightly and interferes with diplomatic efforts to resolve the various conflicts embroiling his country. That view readily prevails in Syria, where President Bashar al Assad’s obvious responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot lead to an ICC indictment because Russia will prevent the necessary referral from passing in the UN Security Council. Ugandan religious leader Joseph Kony, an ICC indictee, is still at large, despite a U.S.-aided manhunt. ICC indictment of Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif and their security chief in Libya does not appear to have had much impact on their behavior.
So what good is an indictment that won’t produce justice for decades? It is unlikely that the indictees themselves will moderate their behavior in response to an indictment. Their discount rate is high and the results too uncertain and too far in the future to make them behave. But there are other possible benefits. First, an indictment may give pause to some of those below the top leadership, who will want to avoid also being held responsible. Second, an indictment is a concrete expression of international community will to remove a leader from power. It may not help in cutting deals, but it makes the bottom line remarkably clear.
Charles Taylor is the first head of state to be convicted since the Nuremberg trials. He is likely not the last. International justice is agonizingly slow, frustratingly incomplete, and potentially damaging to prospects for negotiated settlements. But even justice delayed can shed light on past events, moderate behavior and provide satisfaction to victims.