Rule of Law Wins
Jun 6, 2012 -
Last week, a former Special Court for Sierra Leone official presented me a token of appreciation for work I did to get former Liberian president Charles Taylor before that court. It's a tranquil scene painted by a rehabilitated child soldier, representing his hope for continued peace, which is a lot easier if dictators, warlords and other despicables are held accountable.
Yes, the rule of law has some wins lately. Last week, the Special Court sentenced Charles Taylor to fifty years in prison. With jurisdiction over "those who bear the greatest responsibility" for atrocities during Sierra Leone's brutal war, the Court set its sights on Taylor, who during the late 1990s supported the Revolutionary United Front in neighboring Sierra Leone. The RUF was notorious for hacking off the limbs of victims of all ages and using child soldiers. At age 64, Taylor effectively got a life sentence.
Many thought Taylor would escape justice. As Liberia fell into chaos in 2003, Taylor brokered a deal for safe haven in Nigeria. Only after years of congressional pressure on Nigeria, and a call from newly-elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was Taylor apprehended.
One of Taylor’s chief enablers is now behind bars after a long fight too. Arms dealer Viktor Bout, the "Merchant of Death," was sentenced in April in a U.S. court. A New York jury found Bout guilty of all four charges against him, including conspiring to kill U.S. citizens and attempting to arm a Colombian terrorist organization. Bout had fueled many brutal wars in Africa and elsewhere, breaking international arms embargos. Charles Taylor used Bout to arm his reign of terror.
Like Taylor, many thought Bout was untouchable. But a sophisticated sting operation in Thailand landed him in jail. A long extradition fight between the United States and Russia ensued. Again, congressional pressure (letters, meetings, media) was needed to help the Thais meet their obligation, but Bout was extradited.
Not long ago, bringing individuals like Taylor or Bout to justice was an afterthought. Such efforts risked diplomatic efforts, so it seemed. But that is beginning to change. After all, success breeds success.
New initiatives are underway to help Africans rid themselves of the worst. The U.S. is now assisting African forces in central Africa hunt for Joseph Kony, the sadistic Lord’s Resistance Army leader, responsible for mutilating, abducting, and forcing individuals into sexual servitude, much like Taylor. In 2005, Kony and his top commanders were indicted for crimes against humanity.
The sentencing of a former head of state has sent tremors across Africa and elsewhere where tyrants have long flaunted human rights norms. The environment of impunity – that helped allow Taylor and other dictators flourish – is being chipped away. And one Sierra Leonean village is safer for it.