Last week, former President Charles Taylor of Liberia was sentenced by an international tribunal to 50 years in prison for his role in instigating murder, mutilation, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.
This ruling against a former head of state is a major win for international justice since the Nuremberg trials in 1946. It exemplifies the principle that no one, be they powerful politicians or warlords, is above the law. The sentencing did come with a big price tag: $50 million and nine years since the initial indictment. The people of Sierra Leone, and all peoples, deserve a quicker turnaround in trying cases of perpetrators of violence.
Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have welcomed this historic sentence. Civilians of countries with a history of political violence have equally saluted this manifestation of international justice. For example, a staff member of the Kenya Human Rights Commission shared that the sentencing is a message to powerful leaders that killing people and destruction of countries has consequences. Indeed, two other public officials are next in line to stand before the international criminal court: former president Laurent Gbagbo will be tried for crimes committed during the political stalemate in Côte d’Ivoire, and current president Al-Bachir of Sudan will be tried for his role in the genocide of Darfur.
In Liberia, the sentencing draws mixed reactions. Supporters of Charles Taylor have seemingly been disappointed by the outcome of the long awaited trial. For them, the verdict is unfair because they believed that Charles Taylor’s actions were meant to bring about peace to both Sierra Leone and Liberia. Many others have positively welcomed the news; some with reserve because Charles Taylor and other warlords have yet to be prosecuted for crimes committed in Liberia as well. Justice has been rightly served for the people of Sierra. But it has yet to begin in Liberia where many former associates of Charles Taylor remain at large and active in public life, for want of a tribunal to take them on.
Other critics have underscored a bias in this trial. For this group, international justice is selectively choosing to pursue actors who are either from the global south or posing (and not posing) challenges to the West. In other words, there seems to be a double standard depending on who the perpetrator is and where the defendant comes from. None other than Charles Taylor’s attorney articulates this better by saying that some political leaders of the U.S., for example, ought to be charged by the ICC if funding rebel groups in other countries is now established as an international crime.
Whether politics or strategic interests play a role in international justice is beside the point. Not every country has the power to veto at the UN Security Council. The international criminal court seems to be taking milquetoast steps in going after powerful actors such as Bosco Ntaganda of the Democratic Republic of Congo and current presidents Al-Bachir of Sudan and Assad of Syria. Nonetheless, Charles Taylor got what he deserved. He is not less guilty just because other perpetrators are still on the loose.
Rosalie Nezien is an AJWS program officer for Africa.