Landmark Step in Bringing Justice for Human Rights Violations
June 1, 2007
The trial of a former president associated with human rights abuses across West Africa represents a break from the past. All too often, there has been no justice for victims of serious human rights violations. Taylor’s trial puts would-be perpetrators on notice.
Elise Keppler, counsel with the International Justice Program

(The Hague) - The trial beginning June 4 of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s 11-year brutal armed conflict sends a strong signal that no one is above the law. Taylor’s trial by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone will provide an important chance for victims to see justice done.

Taylor, who was president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003, is being tried on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law committed during Sierra Leone’s conflict. The alleged crimes include murdering and mutilating civilians, using women and girls as sex slaves, and abducting both adults and children and making them perform forced labor or become fighters.

Taylor is charged on the basis of his alleged role as a major backer of the Sierra Leone rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and close association with a second warring faction, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). In addition, Taylor allegedly was responsible for Liberian forces fighting in support of the Sierra Leonean rebels. Liberian forces under Taylor’s command are implicated in human rights abuses in other West African states, including Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, although these are not at issue in this trial.

“The trial of a former president associated with human rights abuses across West Africa represents a break from the past,” said Elise Keppler, counsel with Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “All too often, there has been no justice for victims of serious human rights violations. Taylor’s trial puts would-be perpetrators on notice.”

Taylor is the first African head of state to be indicted on serious crimes under international law by an internationalized criminal court. The Special Court is a national-international court composed of Sierra Leonean and international judges and staff.

Drawing on the experience of the trial of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Human Rights Watch said that conducting trials of former leaders involves significant challenges. These challenges include ensuring the trial is scrupulously fair, including the presumption of innocence, while managing sensitive and high-profile proceedings effectively. They also include giving appropriate focus to evidence of chain of command while providing evidence on crime scenes.

“We have seen that trials of former presidents are difficult business,” said Keppler. “The Special Court’s judges must guarantee Charles Taylor a fair trial, and also conduct proceedings efficiently.”

The Special Court is based in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The court relocated Taylor’s trial to The Hague last June, however, due to its concerns over stability in West Africa if his trial were held in Sierra Leone. The International Criminal Court has lent its facilities for the Special Court to hold the trial.

The relocation of Taylor’s trial to The Hague creates challenges in making the proceedings accessible to the communities that have been most affected by the crimes committed. Accessibility is important to ensure resonance with these communities, Human Rights Watch said.

“People in West Africa need to know what’s happening in Taylor’s trial,” said Keppler. “We welcome the Special Court’s plans to make the proceedings accessible through radio, video, and monitoring by local journalists and civil society.”

Because it is funded primarily through voluntary contributions from UN member states, the Special Court has faced constant financial shortfalls and still needs funding to cover anticipated costs associated with Taylor’s trial. Funding is also needed to complete three trials of eight other defendants currently taking place in Freetown. Other critical activities, such as long-term witness protection, will require further funds.

“The Special Court will need funding to complete its important work in bringing justice for crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s conflict,” said Keppler. “Key supporters like the US, the UK and the Netherlands should ensure that the court has enough resources.”

Background on the Special Court and the Indictment and Surrender of Charles Taylor

The Special Court for Sierra Leone was established in 2002 by agreement between the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone. The court has a mandate to “prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law” in Sierra Leone since 1996. The crimes include killings, mutilations, rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, abduction, and the use of forced labor by armed groups.

Eight individuals associated with the three warring factions during the conflict – Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and Civil Defence Forces (CDF) – are currently being tried in Freetown by the Special Court. In the trials of individuals associated with the CDF and AFRC, which began in June 2004 and March 2005 respectively, the presentation of the cases is complete and the judges are expected to issue verdicts in the next couple of months. In the trial of individuals associated with the RUF, which began in July 2004, the defense began presentation of its case in May.

The Special Court unsealed its indictment of Charles Taylor in June 2003, but Taylor soon received safe haven in Nigeria. Three years later, on March 29, 2006, Taylor was surrendered for trial. Following the Special Court’s request to relocate the trial, the Netherlands agreed to the trial being held in The Hague, but on the condition that Taylor leaves the country after a judgment is delivered. Last June, the United Kingdom offered to provide incarceration facilities for Taylor if convicted, which allowed the relocation to proceed and ultimately, the trial to begin.