The indictment charges Taylor with "bearing the greatest responsibility" for war crimes (murder, taking hostages); crimes against humanity (extermination, rape, murder, sexual slavery); and other serious violations of international humanitarian law (use of child soldiers) in Sierra Leone.
"Charles Taylor is one of the single greatest causes of spreading wars in West Africa," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "His indictment is a tremendous step forward, but his arrest would be even better."
The Sierra Leone Special Court approved the indictment on March 7, but it has been sealed since then, and only made public today. A warrant for Taylor's arrest has been served on the Ghanaian authorities and sent to Interpol.
Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations Security Council to address the security situation in Monrovia, which is likely to decline in the wake of the indictment.
The indictment alleges that Taylor provided training and helped finance the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Foday Sankoh, in preparation for RUF armed action in Sierra Leone and during the subsequent armed conflict in Sierra Leone. It also alleges that Taylor acted in concert with members of the RUF/Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) rebel alliance who are accused of horrific crimes.
Rebel leaders who have been supported by Taylor, including RUF leader Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie, have also been linked to recent abuses against civilians in western Côte d'Ivoire. Bockarie was reportedly killed by Taylor last month. The last indicted individual who remains at large, Johnny Paul Koroma, is believed to be still in Liberia despite calls for Taylor to turn him over to the Special Court.
"The indictment against Taylor sends a strong message that no one is above the law when it comes to accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international humanitarian law," said Takirambudde. "Charles Taylor should not be immune from prosecution for these crimes simply because he is the president of Liberia."
The Special Court's Statute and implementing legislation specifically provide that official capacity is no defense to arrest or prosecution. The statutes for the Rwanda and Yugoslav Tribunals and the International Criminal Court similarly bar immunity based on official position, reflecting the increasing trend by international courts to bring officials to justice for war crimes, crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law, even while they are still in office.
The Special Court was established by agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone and is designed to function for three years. The Special Court has power to prosecute those "who bear the greatest responsibility" for serious violations of international humanitarian law and certain violations of Sierra Leone law committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996.
For Human Rights Watch's reports on the widespread and systematic use of rape and sexual violence and other crimes committed in Sierra Leone, see "We'll Kill You If You Cry: Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict," http://hrw.org/reports/2003/sierraleone/sierleon0103.pdf, "Sowing Terror: Atrocities Against Civilians in Sierra Leone," http://www.hrw.org/reports98/sierra/ and "Sierra Leone: Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, and Rape," http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/sierra/.