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.
Blood for Diamonds
Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war (from 1991 – 2002) was fueled by the sale and trade of diamonds.
These diamonds came to be known as “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds”, because every armed group involved in the war in Sierra Leone used the proceeds from the trade and sale of diamonds to buy weapons and munitions that left approximately 75,000 civilians dead (though estimates run much higher), over one-third of the population displaced, countless women and girls suffering from extraordinary levels of rape and sexual violence, and over 5000 children forcibly recruited to fight for both government and opposition forces. And perhaps most notoriously, the war in Sierra Leone came to be known for its signature atrocity – the amputation and mutilation of arms, hands and feet.
The term “blood diamond” very literally refers to the blood that was spilled in Sierra Leone for the diamonds that adorned countless necklines, earlobes and fingers all across the world.
As president of neighboring Liberia from 1997 until 2003, Charles Taylor stands convicted of fuelling the war in Sierra Leone by arming rebel factions with guns and ammunition in return for diamonds, even while Liberia itself was going through its own protracted and violent civil war.
Historic step for international justice
Today’s conviction marks yet another important step forward in international justice and further demonstrates the importance of international justice mechanisms – such as mixed tribunals and the permanent International Criminal Court –as an essential tool in establishing truth, accountability and reconciliation in post-conflict situations. It also demonstrates that no person – not even a former head of state – is exempt from being held to account for committing human rights abuses. President’s Omar al-Bashir and Bashar al-Assad should really take note.
Yet, much more remains to be done. Victims of human rights abuses committed during the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia also have a right to reparations. But as the Director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone Brima Abdulai Sheriff noted in response to today’s verdict:
While today’s conviction brings some measure of justice to the people of Sierra Leone, Taylor and the others sentenced by the Special court are just the tip of the iceberg. Reparations are integral to achieving justice for the victims and assisting them to rebuild their lives. [Yet] sadly, only a limited number of Sierra Leone’s thousands of victims who bear the terrible scars of the conflict have received reparations, despite the Lome Peace Accord and the clear recommendations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Additionally, we must continue to call for justice with respect to war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Liberian civil war, in Charles Taylor’s own country. To date, no single individual has stood trial in Liberia for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed there.