(Brussels) - When European Union foreign ministers meet in Brussels on May 15, an EU member state should offer to take former Liberian president Charles Taylor if he is convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch said today.

In the absence of a commitment from a specific state, the European Union should collectively agree that one of its member states will ultimately take Taylor if convicted. If no specific country has stepped forward by Monday, the Netherlands should accept a collective EU commitment as sufficient to move forward with transferring Taylor’s trial to The Hague.

“The EU and its member states played a pivotal role in pushing for Taylor’s surrender,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “But now West Africa is being hung out to dry. Delaying the transfer of Taylor’s trial puts West Africa at risk.”

On March 29, Taylor was surrendered to the Special Court, where he is indicted on war crimes and crimes against humanity. The next day, the Special Court requested to relocate Taylor’s trial to The Hague, citing concerns about stability in West Africa if the trial is held in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. The Netherlands agreed to host the trial, but only if Taylor leaves the country after the judgment is delivered, meaning that a third country must agree to take him if convicted.

“The Special Court requested that Taylor’s trial be relocated to The Hague due to the security concerns posed by his presence in the region,” said Leicht. “Liberia’s new president has echoed the same concern. There is an urgent need to resolve this.”

A number of EU member states are well-placed to offer to take Taylor if convicted, Human Rights Watch said. Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom currently have agreements with one or both of the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to provide facilities for convicted persons to serve their sentences. Austria and Sweden are particularly strong candidates as they also have similar agreements with the Special Court, although these have not been ratified.

Austria, Denmark and Sweden have cited various reasons against agreeing to accept Taylor in their countries, including lack of parliamentary approval, lack of resources, or the fact that they have shown a commitment to international justice in other ways. If a specific state does not come forward by the meeting of EU foreign ministers, the Netherlands should accept a collective EU commitment to provide a suitable detention facility for Taylor if convicted so that the transfer does not remain stalled.

“We accept that some governments would have to take steps at the national level before guaranteeing that they would take Taylor,” said Leicht. “What’s needed right now is a political commitment, ideally by one state, but otherwise by the EU collectively.”

If necessary, the European Union should consider sharing the financial burden of the arrangement, Human Rights Watch said.

More on Relocating the Trial

The relocation of Taylor’s trial to The Hague would mean that trial judges and staff from the Special Court would conduct the proceedings according to the court’s statute and rules. The International Criminal Court has agreed to lend its facilities for the trial.

Moving Taylor’s trial outside Sierra Leone would create serious challenges that the Special Court and its donors would have to address, Human Rights Watch noted. The most significant drawback is that trying Taylor in The Hague could limit the accessibility of the trial to people in West Africa. Nonetheless, legitimate concerns over security may make the move necessary.

If the relocation of Taylor’s trial moves forward, Human Rights Watch will issue a briefing paper to the Special Court and its donors on the crucial importance of maintaining the accessibility of The Hague trial for the people of West Africa. The briefing paper will include a number of specific recommendations on how this can be achieved.

Background

The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up in 2002 to try those “bearing the greatest responsibility” for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Sierra Leone’s armed conflict. 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 has charged Taylor with war crimes (murder, pillage, outrages upon personal dignity, cruel treatment, terrorizing civilians), crimes against humanity (murder, mutilation, rape, enslavement, sexual slavery), and other serious violations of international humanitarian law (use of child soldiers) in the course of Sierra Leone’s armed conflict. The indictment alleges that Taylor, as president of Liberia, provided training and financing to the main rebel group in Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front.