(New York) – The transfer of former Liberian President Charles Taylor to the U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone is an enormous step toward ensuring justice for atrocities in West Africa.
After disappearing on Monday evening from Calabar, Nigeria, where Taylor has lived for the past three years, he was arrested by Nigerian authorities on the border with Cameroon today. Taylor, who is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in supporting Sierra Leone's rebel forces, was then placed on a plane headed for Monrovia, where U.N. authorities immediately took him into custody for transport to the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown.
"This is an extraordinary moment for the people of West Africa," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "Taylor's trial should bring long awaited justice to the victims of Sierra Leone's brutal war and promote the rule of law in a region devastated by violence."
Following a request by the new Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Nigeria announced on Saturday that it would consent to Taylor's transfer to Liberia. However, on Monday, Nigeria indicated that it did not intend to physically transfer Taylor or hold him in custody, thereby putting any burden of arrest and transfer on Liberia. The next day, Taylor was reported missing by the Nigerian government.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is in the United States this week and is meeting with President George Bush today.
"The U.S. government has played a very positive role in pressing for Taylor's surrender," Dicker said. "His transfer to the Sierra Leone war crimes court marks a milestone in the international community's commitment to justice."
Created in 2002 through an agreement between the United Nations and the Sierra Leonean government, the Special Court is charged with bringing to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for grave crimes committed since November 1996, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, other serious violations of international humanitarian law and of Sierra Leonean law. 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.
The Special Court - which is staffed by internationals and Sierra Leoneans and includes elements of international and Sierra Leonean law - represents a significant new model of international justice often referred to as a "mixed" or "hybrid" tribunal. There are currently nine indictees being tried in three trials at the Special Court. Human Rights Watch has evaluated the court's work and issued two reports on its progress. (Justice in Motion: The Trial Phase of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, November 2005, and Bringing Justice: the Special Court for Sierra Leone, September 2004).
“The Special Court has broken new ground in the field of international justice,” said Dicker. “It is working hard to make justice accessible to Sierra Leoneans and to protect witnesses. With Taylor in the dock, the court must now ensure his trial is fair and expedient.”
Initially forced to rely exclusively on voluntary donations from other countries, the Special Court has faced constant financial shortfalls. The court currently lacks sufficient funds to complete operations and carry out critical “post-completion” activities, such as protecting witnesses who have testified.
“Now more than ever, we urge international donors to provide adequate funding so the court can complete its work successfully,” said Dicker.
On June 4, 2003, the Special Court for Sierra Leone “unsealed” its indictment against Taylor. He is charged as one of those “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.
The indictment alleges that Taylor provided training to 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 there. It also alleges that Taylor acted in concert with members of the rebel alliance of the RUF and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, who are accused of horrific crimes.
Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997 after a seven-year civil war. He soon gained international notoriety for his forces’ brutal abuses of civilians and for his use of child soldiers organized in “Small Boy Units.” In addition, Taylor’s support for the RUF in Sierra Leone contributed to the deaths, rapes and mutilations of thousands of civilians there, prompting U.N. sanctions on his regime. Taylor’s forces have also been implicated in conflicts in neighboring Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.
In 2003 Taylor left Liberia for Nigeria, where he was offered asylum, and has since then been living in Calabar. Nigeria, acting with the support of the United States, the African Union and other actors in the international community, offered to take in Taylor as a temporary measure to end the bloodshed in Liberia and secure a peaceful transition to a new government. In November 2005, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Liberia was given authority to detain and transfer Taylor to the Special Court for prosecution if he were to enter Liberian territory.