(New York) - The United Nations and the United States should explicitly call on Nigeria to turn former Liberian President Charles Taylor over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch said today.
On Wednesday, the Special Court will officially open its newly constructed courthouse in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown. The first trials of senior officials are expected to begin shortly. The opening ceremony will be attended by high-ranking officials from the United Nations and donor countries.
"The U.N. Security Council has called for indicted war criminals Karadzic and Kabuga to be surrendered to the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, but has remained silent about Charles Taylor," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice program. "This reluctance to press Nigeria to hand over Taylor fosters a double standard that betrays the people of Sierra Leone. It is time to break the silence."
Sierra Leonean lawyers, former combatants, and members of civil society have repeatedly told Human Rights Watch researchers, currently in West Africa, that Charles Taylor's apprehension is vital to the justice process.
The United Nations created the Special Court through an agreement with the government of Sierra Leone. Nine senior, indicted war criminals are currently in custody awaiting trial in the court's detention facility. The Special Court has the power to prosecute those "who bear the greatest responsibility" for serious violations of international humanitarian law and certain violations of domestic law committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996.
Taylor was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in contributing to the deaths, rape, abduction and mutilation of thousands of civilians during Sierra Leone's civil war. The former Liberian president is currently in exile in Nigeria after being forced from power in August 2003.
However, neither the U.N. Security Council nor the Secretary-General has explicitly called for Nigeria to hand Taylor over to the Special Court. The United States, which has been a principal financial donor and supporter of the court, as well as a member of the court's management committee, has also failed to urge Nigeria to bring Taylor to justice.
"By creating the Special Court, the international community has made an important commitment to bringing justice for the horrific crimes committed in Sierra Leone. But justice will be undercut if Taylor is shielded from the court," said Dicker. "For the U.S. government and the United Nations not to press Nigeria to hand Taylor over will send a clear message that the law only reaches so far."
Elected president of Liberia in 1997 after a seven-year war that ousted former president Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor gained international notoriety for the brutal abuses against civilians committed by his forces in Liberia, and for his use of child soldiers organized in "Small Boy Units."
Forces supported by Taylor have also been involved in conflicts in neighboring Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. There are credible reports that Taylor remains in frequent contact with members of his former government, and that hundreds of fighters loyal to him are undergoing training in Liberia near the border with Cote d'Ivoire. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Liberia has expressed concern about the allegations of troop training, but so far has found no evidence to support them.
Human Rights Watch has consistently called on Nigeria to arrest and surrender Charles Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Shielding Taylor from justice contravenes international law and undermines Nigeria's express commitment to combat impunity.