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Handing Over Charles Taylor: It's Time

JURIST Guest Columnist David Crane, former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, now at Syracuse University College of Law, says it's time for Nigeria to hand over former Liberian president Charles Taylor for trial on war crimes charges...


A little over three years ago, on 3 March 2003, I signed the international indictment of President Charles G. Taylor of Liberia for 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity while serving as Chief Prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa, called the Special Court for Sierra Leone. I sealed that indictment, awaiting the appropriate time to unseal it. I did so, on 4 June 2003, as Charles Taylor arrived in Accra, Ghana to allegedly begin the peace process to end the Liberian civil war. The unsealing of his indictment was a carefully laid plan to humble Africa’s most powerful warlord before the law and to bring world attention to this African leader who destroyed two West African nations, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and was individually criminally liable for the murder, rape, maiming, and mutilation of over a million human beings. The unsealing was also necessary to ensure that a legitimate peace process began in Accra, not a flawed series of dialogs with an indicted war criminal. With the stroke of my pen, the rule of law was shown to be more powerful than the rule of the gun. There was dancing in the streets of Sierra Leone that day.

Though appropriately warned, the international community was not ready to see this head of state, only the second in history behind Slobodan Milosevic, and the first African head of state to be indicted for war crimes at the international level, turned over to an international tribunal they created to prosecute those who bore the greatest responsibility for the atrocities that took place in Sierra Leone during the ten-year long civil war in the 1990’s. Scrambling, the United States, Great Britain, the United Nations, and Nigeria entered into an agreement to put Taylor aside in Calabar, Nigeria while a peace took hold in Liberia.

It has been two and a half years now since Taylor left Liberia, stripped of his political power by the indictment. He sits brooding, yet still meddling, in Nigeria. To date, despite tremendous international pressure, and a request by the new Liberian President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to hand Taylor over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, President Obasanjo of Nigeria has refused to do so, saying it is not time, that peace needs to take hold in Liberia before it can be done. Obasanjo is in violation of both international and Nigerian domestic law in holding Taylor. He continues to defy the international arrest warrant. He should be brought to task for this.

It is now time. There will be no peace in Liberia until Taylor is handed over to the tribunal in Freetown, Sierra Leone for a fair trial on the 17 count indictment. Taylor swore to the people of West Africa that he would be back, “God willing”. This statement sent a chill through all of us. We knew he meant it, and because of this statement a true peace in Liberia will never take hold; millions of US dollars will go for naught. Even a large peacekeeping force in Liberia will not be sufficient, as they will not be able to remain there forever. Taylor is young and patient. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He will wait and when the world has moved on to another crisis he will make his move and return to Monrovia, the capital. What will happen after that is too horrific to contemplate.

Taylor is well placed politically to return. He has meddled in the election process that saw President Johnson-Sirleaf elected as the first female president of any African state, by ensuring that he controls the legislature. Many leaders in that legislature are old Taylor cronies, some indictable war criminals. Even his wife has been elected a senator. Most politicians in Liberia are looking over their shoulders, as are business leaders and civil society, knowing that if they commit to the new president they could be jeopardizing their lives should Taylor return. An armed group in Taylor’s home county of Lofa stands ready, on Taylor’s orders, to move on Monrovia when the peacekeepers leave.

To end this possibility and fear in Liberia, Taylor needs to be handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. It is that simple. By doing so he will be carved out of Liberian politics, his supporters no longer having a rallying point, and the new government can look forward, not back, to start solving Liberia’s massive internal problems.

Last week, while in the United States, Liberian President Johnson-Sirleaf did publicly acknowledge that Taylor needed to be handed over so that justice could run its course, and she called on Nigeria to do just that. Before a cheering joint session of Congress, she pledged that Liberia would be a democratic success in West Africa. Next week President Obasanjo will visit the United States. It is hoped by then he will have an announcement to make related to Taylor and his hand over. It is now time, President Obasanjo, time for justice to begin in West Africa.


David M. Crane is a distinguished visiting professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law and formerly the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

March 22, 2006


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