5 Steps Forward, 5 Steps Back: Catching and Convicting War Criminals

international justice fugatives

Click image to view full infographic and list of wanted fugatives

Today, supporters of human rights mark the Global Day for International Justice, an anniversary the need for which makes ‘celebration’ difficult, if not impossible.  A cursory look over last year of developments as it relates to securing justice for the most egregious of crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide—might yield cause for optimism, however.

Five Steps Forward for Justice

  1. Over the last year, following a UN Security Council referral of Libya, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found reasonable grounds for issuing arrest warrants for top Libyan officials, even as conflict was ongoing, demonstrating the ability and importance of the court in active crises.
  2. The ICC saw the first verdict and sentence handed down as Thomas Lubanga answered for conscription of children in devastating conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
  3. Also over the last year, Laurent Gbagbo, the former head of state of Cote d’Ivoire, became the first head of state to be surrendered to the ICC for alleged crimes, only one week after his indictment.
  4. At the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, Ratko Mladic finally faces prosecution for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for the largest mass murder in Europe since the end of World War II.
  5. The first conviction of a former head of state since the Nuremburg trials, as my colleague Angela Chang describes, was a historic step for international justice.

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Ex-Liberian President Who Brought "Blood Diamonds" Into the Public Consciousness, Found Guilty of War Crimes

Charles Taylor

Today, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in The Hague convicted Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, with aiding and abetting 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including murder, rape, sexual slavery and use of child soldiers – committed during Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war.

Set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations, the Special Court is  a “hybrid” or “mixed” tribunal, including both international and Sierra Leonean staff,  as well as  elements of both international and Sierra Leonean law.

Charles Taylor is the first former head of state to have been prosecuted in an international criminal court for crimes committed in Africa, and today’s conviction marks the first verdict for a head of state charged with international war crimes since the Nuremberg trials following World War II.

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Five Empty Chairs

In October, Amnesty applauded the announcement that the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to three world-changing women—Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. In addition to celebrating the work of these women, we’re also very happy that they’re all free to attend the award ceremony tomorrow.

While this year’s winners travel to Oslo to accept their awards, this freedom of movement is not the reality for many activists around the world, including past prize recipients.  Today, we remember five past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize who have been unable to attend the award ceremony due to persecution:

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Why The Nobel Prize Isn’t Just About Women’s Rights

Yemen's Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian 'peace warrior' Leymah Gbowee, winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Today the Nobel Committee announced that it is awarding its Peace Prize to three women: Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkul Karman, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

While the fact that the prize is being awarded to three women is important, it is not the most important symbol of what today’s announcement represents. Sure, the number of women who have been honored in the prize’s history (twelve until today) pales in comparison to the number of men (eighty-five), and that disparity should be addressed.

But focusing exclusively on the numbers game as we congratulate Gbowee, Karman and Sirleaf misses the point entirely: these women are not honored today because they are women. They are honored for what their work represents in promoting a more peaceful, just world. Doing so as women, they are both at unique risk and offer unique solutions—but their work makes the world a better place for all.

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Digging Deeper Into Naomi Campbell’s "Dirty Little Stones"

By Tom Turner, Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA

Did Naomi Campbell know who Charles Taylor was, before the then president of Liberia gave her a bag of rough diamonds? Did she immediately know that the “dirty little stones” in the bag were in fact diamonds? What did she do next? All of this seems rather far from the concerns of Amnesty International, and perhaps more suited to Entertainment Tonight or TMZ than to a serious news outlet.

As I conceded during an interview on WCCO News Radio 830 (Minneapolis), perhaps we should be grateful for the brief attention to the blood diamonds issue in 2010, which had almost disappeared from view since receiving vast attention in 2006, when the Hollywood film starring Leonardo Di Caprio was earning millions of dollars. In my view, that is not really the case. The film stressed the link between the precious stones and the violence they fueled, albeit in a formulaic manner.

This time, however, the brief news stories and video footage provided too little information to enable the listener or viewer to contextualize the Campbell-Taylor episode. Often, one had to read several paragraphs of celebrity “she said, she said” regarding Campbell, her former assistant, and Mia Farrow, before even learning that all this was taking place in an international courtroom in The Hague (Netherlands).

A diamond merchant shows his wares in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Despite its pledge to support the Kimberley Process and Clean Diamond Trade Act, the Diamond Industry has fallen short of implementing the necessary policies for self-regulation. © Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Charles Taylor is alleged to have traded weapons for rough diamonds from Sierra Leone and in so doing, to have fueled the civil war in that country. During Sierra Leone’s civil war, approximately 75,000 civilians were killed. Over one-third of the population—two million people—was displaced. More than 5,000 children were recruited to fight in both government and opposition forces. Many civilians suffered amputated limbs.

Former President Taylor stands accused of unlawful killings, mutilations, rape, sexual slavery, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, abduction, and the use of forced labor by Sierra Leonean armed opposition groups, which he is alleged to have actively supported.

Amnesty International supported the Kimberley Process, by which diamonds would be certified conflict-free. It has called on the Kimberley Process to strengthen its commitment to protecting human rights and to improve the peer review mechanism. Amnesty continues to press the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in their countries. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done.

The diamond industry must be reminded that corporate impunity for past crimes relating to blood diamonds will not be tolerated. This is important, as a sign to the victims and the families that the crimes committed against them are not being forgotten. It is equally important as a warning to the people in the industry that we in the human rights community have our eyes on them and will not be as slow to react next time as we were in the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Tom Turner is Democratic Republic of Congo Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA. He is the author of The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality (Zed Books, 2007).