Charles Taylor's Lasting Impact on West Africa The former leader of Liberia, Charles Taylor, is on trial for sponsoring rape, torture and murder in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Africa policy expert Emira Woods and former Taylor prosecutor David Crane discuss the significance of the trial and the former president's lasting mark on West Africa.
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Charles Taylor's Lasting Impact on West Africa

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Charles Taylor's Lasting Impact on West Africa

Charles Taylor's Lasting Impact on West Africa

Charles Taylor's Lasting Impact on West Africa

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The former leader of Liberia, Charles Taylor, is on trial for sponsoring rape, torture and murder in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Africa policy expert Emira Woods and former Taylor prosecutor David Crane discuss the significance of the trial and the former president's lasting mark on West Africa.


We're going to continue our conversation about the trial Charles Taylor with Emira Woods. She is the co-director of foreign policy in focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Also with us is David Crane. He is the former prosecutor who headed the human rights case against Charles Taylor. He is now a professor at the Syracuse University College of Law. Thank you both for speaking with us.

Professor DAVID CRANE (Syracuse University College of Law; Former Chief Prosecutor): Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be here.

Ms. EMIRA WOODS (Co-director, Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies): It's a joy to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Emira, you've studied this region for many years. Can you talk to us about the impact that Charles Taylor had, not just on Sierra Leone, but on the whole region of West Africa?

Ms. WOODS: I think it is critical to recognize how much people are looking forward to this trial, because it shows that no one is above the law. Everyone has to be held accountable, including the very top leadership of the atrocities, gross violations of international law, of human dignity. It shows that not only Taylor but also his machinery, the whole corporate class around Taylor has to be held accountable for, not only the atrocities in Sierra Leone, but also the deaths of 250,000 Liberians. And as a Liberian, clearly, there's a high stake here. There's a lot at stake, and people are recognizing that for the first time in a very long time, justice can be served.

MARTIN: David Crane, we mentioned that you were the prosecutor earlier there. Will you talk about the crimes that Charles Taylor is accused of?

Prof. CRANE: The accounts consist of murder, rape, pillage, plunder, extermination, the unlawful recruitment of child soldiers, among other charges.

MARTIN: How did he react?

Prof. CRANE: Well, Charles Taylor - really the most powerful warlord in Africa - never felt that he would ever be humbled before the law. This cynical person, who is using his own people for his own personal gain is individually, criminally liable for the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of over 1.2 million West Africans. This cannot stand. Truly, the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun.

MARTIN: Emira, you're a Liberian, as you mentioned earlier. What was the source of his support within the country?

Ms. WOODS: Let's remember this was Cold War times, and Taylor actually came to power after Samuel Doe, who was a military dictator, very much supported by the U.S. And what happened, you had this geopolitical fight going on with Reagan supporting Doe. You then had Gadhafi wanting to support an alternative to Doe. So outside the country, there were these power plays going on. And then you have to couple that internally with people after 10 years of a military dictatorship saying enough is enough. We need a change.

And so I think there was tremendous support to bring anyone other than Doe and tremendous support inside the country as well, until it became quite evident that Taylor was really just another Doe. That in spite of the different allegiances externally, that within the country you had an incredible sort of combination of terrorism and economic destruction of a country that actually spilled across the borders. So this West Africa region became like a powder keg, really, with the shipments of arms, of illegal timber, of really anything that could not be tied down across those borders to continue to fuel basically, you know, terrorist acts against the people of West Africa.

MARTIN: How was Taylor eventually ejected from power?

Ms. WOODS: I believe it would not have happened without the women of Liberia, in particular, who marched everyday in the hot sun and the pouring rain with their kids on their back for peace, saying that we cannot continue this movement to inhumanity, that we need a different way, a different path. It was the Liberians working with the international community to first have international peacekeepers on the ground, to bring security, and then to have a process to negotiate peace. It was this coupling of internal activism and external support and political will from the international community that I think has brought this measure of peace and stability today.

MARTIN: Given that, there is some criticism within Sierra Leone about the trial taking place at The Hague as opposed to within the country, given that the atrocities were committed there. Do you have an opinion about that?

Ms. WOODS: Well, this has been heavily debated. I, for one, I'm just happy that trial is going forward. What is important is that there is the transparency, the openness, the public eye. I think you can't have a gathering - whether physical, or, you know, in virtual gathering, right - were people can be attentive to what's going on in the trial and can be participating in terms of recognizing the potential of first putting the rule of law central to what we do as a people in West Africa and what our values are as a people in West Africa.

MARTIN: David Crane, I understand that you will be attending the proceedings against Charles Taylor at The Hague. Why is that important to you?

Prof. CRANE: I'm representing the wonderful people in my office who gave so much to see this happen, but more importantly I'm standing up for the wonderful people of Sierra Leone who I walked the entire countryside with, spoke to over three years.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that they told you?

Prof. CRANE: I was speaking to a group of deaf children. Then a young man stood up. He was about 12, and in the atonal voice of someone who has been deaf most of his life, he said I killed people. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. And so I went over to him and I hugged him, and I said, of course, you didn't mean it. As you know, I announced fairly early on in my tenure that I was not going to prosecute any child soldier for what took place here, because I felt child soldiers were as much victims as the victims themselves. And that - there was a huge sigh of relief in Sierra Leone over that.

But anyway, as I was hugging this young man, I looked over and another young woman stood up and she was missing a major portion of her face. And I found out later that her face had been forced into a pot of boiling oil by the Revolutionary United Front. And she was holding her young child. And she looked me directly in the eye and through cracked lips said, seek justice. And I have to tell you, I thought I had hardened myself to the horrors that I had seen, and I stood there in front of all of these people and just wept with her.

MARTIN: Emira, have you been back home?

Ms. WOODS: I have, Michel. I have.

MARTIN: What are some of the stories that people have told you?

Ms. WOODS: Well, some of the stories - unfortunately, it's very painful to talk about. Liberia has three million people, and quite literally every family was affected by these years of the war. And I think what touched me the most was it's - really it's, in many ways, called abuse of women. But when you see it your own family and when you recognize that this is your cousin who was at the time 16 with two children, and when you hear the stories of how she ended up with those two children - you know, these are people who go to church everyday. These are faith-based people who have a set of values that you would think would help them make other choices. Yet the atrocities of the time, the economic crisis at the time, left them without very many viable choices.

MARTIN: What are you saying?

Ms. WOODS: I'm saying you had young girls who really had to prostitute themselves in many ways with their parents knowing fully well what was going on. And the result today, the result of HIV/AIDS pandemic in West Africa, the result of violence against women which is so rampant that will really take several generations before it's addressed fully. Those sort of psychosocial phenomena of the war exacerbated by the Taylor machinery is what we're talking about and the imprint of that on people's lives in a real way.

When I went two years ago was probably the most traumatic, you know. I've been going pretty steadily since then. But I came back and my friend said, Emira, you look like you have some type of shock. It's like posttraumatic shock that you're in. And it felt that way. Because when you hear story after story, it rips your heart out.

MARTIN: Wow. David Crane, have you ever met Charles Taylor?

Prof. CRANE: I have not.

MARTIN: How difficult was it for you to get witnesses to testify to these crimes so that you could bring the indictment forward?

Prof. CRANE: We worked with the people of Sierra Leone - not only through our outreach program, but also we began to work with them as far as asking them questions. We cared for them as far as we went to visit every one of them, asking them how they were doing, whether they had been threatened - asked if they wanted to continue their story, or, in some cases, actually continue the process by which they will tell us the story.

You know, it's very interesting, you know, women and children were the brunt of this war, both in Liberia and in Sierra Leone. And they were the ones that we were focusing our indictments on - gender crimes. And, you know, how do you get a Muslim woman who has been raped 40 times to come from her village and stand before the world and tell her story?

I have to tell you, it's just sitting in the courtroom and watching the proud West African people come in knowing that justice was being done. You see an individual raise his stump and point it at the individuals who we indicted, saying you did this to me. And then watch him walk proudly out of the courtroom pass them. That's justice again.

Of the 500 individuals who we eventually got down to about 345 to prosecute the cases - all of them showed up.

MARTIN: Wow. Emira, as you know that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the new president of Liberia, was elected last January. She's been in office for about a year and half. She's been well received here. But are there additional steps that you would like to see the U.S. take to support her and to support the new democratic government in Liberia and to support this prosecution?

Ms. WOODS: Thank you for that question. I think the first step is recognizing the extent of this machinery around Taylor. So you - the estimated $3 billion of funds in international accounts that Taylor has hold off either in Europe or in the U.S., finding out the sources of those accounts, where they are, actually retrieving and repatriating those funds can go a long way to reopening schools and hospitals in Liberia.

Beyond the Taylor machinery, there's a lot more that the international community can do. I would say top of that list is cancellation of Liberia's debt, which is also about three to four - now it's $4 billion dollars, right? It is an incredible overhang that cripples the country…

MARTIN: That were incurred by a dictator.

Ms. WOODS: That were incurred by a dictator

MARTIN: Who has encased, allegedly, in a criminal enterprise.

Ms. WOODS: Without a doubt. Much of this debt was incurred both under Samuel Doe and on under Taylor, but much of the interest accrued under Taylor. And I think canceling that debt, just again, as the debt for Iraq was cancelled because it was known as the debt of a dictator - illegitimate of Saddam Hussein.

Clearly, there is an example of that in Liberia as well. Liberia's debt should be cancelled. Really, it should have been cancelled right when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated. There was all of this warmth and support and rhetoric of Africa's first woman president being applauded, and yet the simplest thing that the international community could have done and still can do has not yet been done.

MARTIN: David Crane, I wanted to ask what lesson do you draw from his rein and the events that caused him to be removed from power?

Prof. CRANE: We have to be much better at trying to address the things that cause the conditions by which atrocity can take place: poverty, corruption, lack of good governance. And we should do that early on as opposed to later on. So I think that the case of Charles Taylor has shown that to all leaders of the world, particularly in Africa, that you just can't destroy your own people, that the people of Africa now matter. And what's more important is the people of Africa know that.

MARTIN: Emira, final question to you. As a Liberian, what do you hope that the country gains from this prosecution?

Ms. WOODS: I hope the country gains a sense of real dignity once more. I think we've gone, in the case of Liberia, from being associated with dictators to being associated with Africa's first woman president, and all that it took to have that happen, all that it took in terms of ordinary citizens engaging in political process - I think that is the hope for the future. It is what gives young people a new perspective of what's possible in this 21st century.

MARTIN: Emira Woods is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies here in Washington. David Crane is professor of law at Syracuse University. He is also the former international prosecutor of the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor.

Thank you both so much for joining us today.

Ms. WOODS: A total pleasure. Thank you, Michel.

Prof. CRANE: My pleasure. Thank you.

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