by Dr Christine Cheng on 02 May 2012 | Comments
A milestone in international justice also highlights the Court’s need to maintain its legitimacy.
Oxford, United Kingdom - After a long and expensive trial, the Special Court for Sierra Leone finally pronounced that former Liberian president Charles Taylor is guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes.
While there has been little doubt that Taylor commanded militia that were responsible for some horrific acts of violence in Liberia, his home country, this judgment considered the extent to which he should be held responsible for ordering and condoning various war crimes (including murder, sexual violence, and enslavement) which were committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone. He has been acquitted of ordering these crimes and atrocities with the court finding that he did not hold direct command and control responsibility, but he has been found guilty of aiding and abetting these crimes.
Among Western governments and their publics, there is widespread agreement that prosecuting Taylor has been the right and proper thing to do. The West considers the Special Court for Sierra Leone as upholding human rights and bringing justice to bear on a brutal dictator. Yet even though these claims undoubtedly have merit, it would be naïve to think that international justice is being pursued purely for its own sake.
It seems particularly important to acknowledge that justice, especially international justice in the context of war crimes, can never be completely isolated from its broader social and political context - no matter how hard we try to separate the two. The prosecution of Charles Taylor is no exception.
Those who are cynical about prosecuting war crimes at the international level will first point out that the Special Court for Sierra Leone has been backed and financed by the West (primarily the US, UK, Netherlands, and Canada). For Westerners who are accustomed to impartial judicial systems, this is an irrelevant fact: Justice is justice no matter who is paying for it.
To the rest of the world, however, there is much greater variation in judicial norms, and the fact that the trial has been funded by Western powers is significant. It will also not escape unnoticed that this trial conveniently helped the US and UK achieve an important geopolitical goal: the removal of Charles Taylor from West African soil at a fragile moment in Liberia’s post-conflict recovery in 2006.
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