President of Liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf speaks to media before addressing UN Security Council in New York.

© 2006 Reuters

(New York) – Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took a landmark step for justice and accountability in West Africa when she formally asked Nigeria to surrender former president Charles Taylor to face trial, Human Rights Watch said today. President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria must now respond by promptly handing Taylor over to the U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone.

President Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated in January 2006 after winning pivotal elections in the war-torn West African nation. Taylor, the former president of Liberia accused of fomenting war crimes in Sierra Leone, went into exile in Nigeria in August 2003 as rebels threatened to take over the Liberian capital Monrovia.

“The people of Sierra Leone have waited a long time for justice, and today President Johnson-Sirleaf has taken a courageous step towards making sure they get it,” said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. “Now President Obasanjo must play his part and surrender Taylor for trial.”

As president of Liberia, Taylor actively supported armed opposition groups in Sierra Leone accused of committing multiple war crimes. His departure from Liberia in August 2003 was part of an arrangement brokered by the African Union, Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), and other key actors in the international community, including the United States, in a bid to reduce further bloodshed in Liberia. Since then, President Obasanjo has maintained that he would only surrender Taylor to the Sierra Leone Special Court upon a request from a duly-elected government in Liberia.

In a statement issued today, President Obasanjo said he would comply with the surrender request after consulting with the African Union and ECOWAS. During a press conference at the United Nations today, President Johnson-Sirleaf indicated that she wanted consultation between President Obasanjo and regional leaders on this issue. She indicated that it should include those involved in the original decision that Taylor should be allowed to depart Liberia, so as not to exclude them. However, she was equally clear that following such consultation, Taylor should face trial.

“President Obasanjo must promptly comply with the request for Taylor’s surrender,” Dicker said. “Consultation with other African leaders should not buy Taylor any more time to escape facing justice for his alleged crimes.”

At a briefing by President Johnson-Sirleaf of the U.N. Security Council today, members of the council strongly endorsed her request for Taylor’s surrender. Eight council members – Tanzania, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Greece, Argentina, and Slovakia – all explicitly supported this step. Many council members also expressed their support for the continued presence of U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia to help maintain security there.

“Security Council members have sent a strong signal in support of Liberia’s request and for Taylor to face trial at the U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone,” said Dicker. “President Obasanjo should listen to the message.”

Taylor has been accused of 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court of Sierra Leone. These 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 Sierra Leonean armed opposition groups, which Taylor actively supported.

Time is of the essence for Taylor to face trial, Human Rights Watch said. The Special Court of Sierra Leone is already advanced in its operations and is facing mounting international pressure to complete operations.