Liberian President Targets Taylor for War Crimes Trial

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Liberia's newly elected president wants her country's former leader, Charles Taylor, handed to a special war crimes court in Sierra Leone. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talks to Debbie Elliott about the many challenges she faces.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Another leader accused of war crimes may be closer to standing trial. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor left Liberia in 2003 under a deal that ended a 14-year civil war in his own country. But Taylor also stands indicted by a UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone for his role in that country's bloody civil war.

Efforts to bring Taylor to justice have been thwarted since he was given asylum in Nigeria. Now, Liberia's newly elected president has formally requested that Nigeria extradite Taylor. Allen Johnson Sirleaf is in the United States, where she told the UN Security Council of her request. She also addressed a joint session of Congress.

President ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF (Liberia): I stand before you today as the first woman elected to lead an African nation.

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: President Sirleaf needs to gather all the support she can for her war-torn nation. She described the devastation of a civil war that killed a quarter million of her people.

President SIRLEAF: Our boys, full of potential, were forced to be child soldiers; to kill or be killed. Our girls, capable of being anything they could imagine, were made into sex slaves; gang-raped by men with guns; made mothers while they still were children themselves.

ELLIOTT: We spoke with President Sirleaf earlier this week. She said it was time to bring closure to the matter of Charles Taylor.

President SIRLEAF: This longstanding matter must now be brought to an end. Mr. Taylor must have to stay in court, but in an environment that is conducive with the right of full self-defense.

ELLIOTT: Are you at all concerned, should he return to Liberia, what that would mean for your country?

President SIRLEAF: Well, he's not supposed to return to Liberia. He was not indicted by a Liberian court. He was indicted by a special court, supported by the United Nations, you know, in Sierra Leone, so there's no question about his returning to Liberia. That's not part of the understanding that took him into exile.

ELLIOTT: I get the sense that you have quite a lot in front of you. After two decades of turmoil in your country, you have incredible problems; widespread poverty, government corruption, no electricity, not even running water in your capital city. You said that you're only going to be in office for one six-year term. That seems like a lot to accomplish in such a short time. Where do you begin?

President SIRLEAF: Well, we've already begun. We've started, but with the composition of a cabinet that's inclusive, but yet meet our basic standards of qualification, competence, integrity, respect for human rights. We've taken already some hard decisions, requiring all our public servants to declare their assets. We're trying to set our financial house in order. But the needs are many; the challenges are enormous, no doubt. We've got to secure the peace. We've already inducted into office a truth and reconciliation commission. We've changed the entire Supreme Court. We're implementing a decision to totally demobilize the Army. We've still got to respond to the education and health needs of our population, particularly the war-affected of youth.

ELLIOTT: What do you specifically need to do first for all of these other changes to fall into place?

President SIRLEAF: We've got to get the government machinery functioning effectively. One of the campaign promises I made is that I will see electricity restored in certain parts of the capital city within six months, and we've made progress. We think that commitment will to a large extent be met.

ELLIOTT: You addressed a joint session of Congress this week, and you're scheduled to meet with President Bush on Tuesday. If you could choose only one thing for the United States to do to help Liberia, what would that be?

President SIRLEAF: I'll say to you what Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said. She said, Madame President, you electrified the world with your elections. The United States now has the responsibility to electrify your country. That's what we want them to do, because it's a strong political commitment on my part. And it's going to be the first example of making a promise to my people.

ELLIOTT: I would think that that has to happen before you can have economic development.

President SIRLEAF: Oh, much more than just what we do in the six months I promise. We need to get the restoration of power, you know, throughout the country, other kind infrastructure. We need to get our roads repaired and the bridges rebuilt. Liberian people generally are weary of war. They want to see their lives normal again. Our young people, many with whom I met during the campaign, say to me they want to go to school. They want an education. They want to go back and be re-integrated in their families. So, and those are the things we need to work on.

ELLIOTT: You seem to have a very ambitious agenda, but yet such a short time. Are you ever, I don't know, overwhelmed with what's in front of you?

President SIRLEAF: Oh, yeah. At times, you know, the enormity of the challenge, and the constraint on resources, and also just the time it takes to get things done just creates a certain level of anxiety, because I want to see things change very quickly. I want to see improvement. I want to see impact right away. And the reality is that it just doesn't happen that soon. With all the good will, even with the resources, it takes time. And so, we are going to just have to be very open and transparent with the Liberian people, telling them what's possible, what's not, within a timeframe. And that's what we're trying to do.

ELLIOTT: Madame President, thank you very much for speaking with us.

President SIRLEAF: Thank you for talking to me.

ELLIOTT: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia.

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