Prosecuting Liberia's Charles Taylor

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Commentator Jeremy Levitt talks about the many allegations against former Liberian President Charles Taylor — and the likelihood that an outcome that all parties involved will find satisfactory may be impossible to reach. Levitt is an associate professor of law at Florida International University in Miami, Fla.


Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was arrested last week and charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor was brought before the special court for Sierra Leone on Monday.

His case is unique in that he's charged with crimes that he allegedly committed in several African countries. This leaves African officials, as well as the international community, in uncharted territory.

As commentator Jeremy Levitt explains, Charles Taylor's case may mark a new trend in international law.

JEREMY LEVITT reporting:

Since the recent death of Slobodan Milosevic, who was being prosecuted for war crimes and other atrocities before the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, international attention has switched to Taylor.

In 2003, while still President of Liberia, Charles Taylor was indicted by the U.N.-backed Sierra Leone special court for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone, not Liberia, between 1996 and 2002--including acts of terrorism, unlawful killings, sexual and physical violence, forced enlistment and abduction of child soldiers, forced labor, and looting.

The bulk of his victims were women and children. Taylor has been identified by the international community as a key figure in Sierra Leone's blood diamonds trade, and is said to have given and economic haven to al-Qaida.

Last week, while waiting extradition from Nigeria to Sierra Leone, the warlord escaped only to be later arrested by Nigerian border guards while trying cross into Cameroon. Taylor was immediately extradited to Sierra Leone to face his indictment. His arrest and extradition to Sierra Leone by another African nation, Nigeria, sends a very strong message to Africa's warlords, rebels, and beyond: that impunity and international atrocities is no longer acceptable. And it sends an equally strong signal to the international community that Africa's serious about finding African solutions to African problems.

Taylor's capture and extradition was celebrated by most Liberians, except for a small group of loyalists. And Sierra Leonians seem to be less concerned about Taylor's imminent prosecution, and more troubled by the potentially destabilizing effect his presence brings.

Taylor's presence in Sierra Leone does pose a credible security threat to the country and perhaps the region. His enlisted network of killers, thugs, thieves, smugglers, and shady businessmen remains intact. Since Taylor's presence in Sierra Leone threatens the entire West African region, the United Nations Security Council is currently considering a resolution that would move his trial to the Hague, the world's judicial capitol.

If Taylor's trial is held in the Netherlands, one questions whether he should also face charges in the newly founded, Hague-based international criminal court for committing atrocities in Liberia. Liberians are certainly eager for him to be held accountable for destroying the country and butchering its people.

One thing is certain: Taylor's alleged crimes in Sierra Leone are minor when compared to the major atrocities he committed in Liberia. With Milosevic's death, Taylor's trial will likely be the most important international criminal prosecution in the 21st century. African judges, lawyers, plaintiffs, and defendants will not only make history, but also shape international criminal prosecutions for the foreseeable future.

While he is currently the subject of an international criminal witch-hunt, we should not underestimate Taylor's ability to escape, or overestimate the strength of the special courts case against him. Either way, until he's held accountable for committing atrocities against Liberians, any sanction against Taylor, although tasty, will be half-baked.

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