Now had I not gone and visited Sierra Leone, this story might have very well escaped my radar. It’s amazing what a visit to a war torn country will do to you in terms of opening yur eyes and making you take notice of things that you wouldn’t ordinarily.
But after having visited Sierra Leone and spoke with the many victims of the war and saw for myself the thousands of people roaming the land missing limbs, yes, I said missing limbs, and listening to the horrifying stories told to me by children who are now orphans because their parents were killed in the war, the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, which opens today at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague is of extra special interest to me.
Charles Taylor has been charged with committing crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sierra Leone, including 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.
The trial of Charles Taylor is the first time a former head of state or government has been prosecuted in the Special Court for crimes committed in Africa against Africans.
There is an interesting piece on the trial in this month’s The AFRican Magazine. Check it out.
This trial is sure to be dramatic as there are many people that are still loyal to Taylor. There’s also heavy speculation into exactly what role the United States played in putting him into power in the first place.
Former president Charles Taylor, after three years in exile in Nigeria, was surrendered to the Special Court for Sierra Leone on March 29, 2006. Taylor has been accused of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity against the people of Sierra Leone. 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 Sierra Leonean armed opposition groups.
Following the surrender of Charles Taylor, the Special Court requested that – for security reasons – the trial be moved to The Hague, The Netherlands.
On May 31, 2004 the Special Court ruled that Charles Taylor did not enjoy immunity from prosecution by virtue of his status as head of state at the time the crimes for which he is indicted were committed. This decision upheld the principles of international justice and the rule of law.
To date, the Special Court has indicted 13 individuals under its mandate to prosecute those bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, other serious violations of international humanitarian law and certain crimes under Sierra Leone national law committed since November 30, 1996. Out of the 13, nine are in custody and trials have started for all of them. Three have died and one remains at large. However, to date in Liberia, after two decades of conflict, no one has been brought to justice for crimes committed there. In Sierra Leone, an amnesty law provides immunity to thousands of other perpetrators who will not be prosecuted by the Special Court.
Although African prosecutors have investigated and prosecuted former African heads of state, including Mengistu Hailé Mariam and other members of the Derg (the collective head of state of Ethiopia), former Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the short-lived Central African Empire (now Central African Republic), the former President Moussa Traore of Mali and, soon, former President Hisseine Habré of Chad in Senegal, Charles Taylor is the first former African head of state to be prosecuted by the Special Court. The highest ranking official convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda.
About The War
• The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Foday Sankoh, launched its rebellion in 1991 and soon after President Momoh was replaced by a military government – the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). Despite the change in government, the RUF attacks continued. Right from the start of the insurrection Liberian rebel leader and later president, Charles Taylor, acted as banker, trainer and mentor to the RUF.
• Foreign and domestic pressure forced the NPRC to hold general elections in 1996, a sad spin-off of which was that the rebels started cutting off peoples hands in an attempt to derail the process. The practice started in response to the government’s publicity campaign slogan for the election, ‘The future is in your hands’ . Despite the terror spread by the RUF, a new civilian government formed under Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, became the first freely elected administration for 34 years.
• The rebel war smoldered on and a year later a group of disaffected Sierra Leone Army soldiers seized power, styling themselves as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and lead by Major Johnny Paul Koroma. The Kabbah government managed to flee into exile while the AFRC invited the rebel forces to join them and pillage, rape and terror almost became institutionalized throughout the country.
• The West (primarily the UK and USA), after the debacle of Somalia and the developing crisis in the Balkans and the Middle East, was not willing to become involved with Sierra Leone. The West, through the United Nations, persuaded the regional economic organization, ECOWAS, to field a military intervention force to re-instate the democratically elected government of Tejan Kabbah.
• The force mainly consisted of Nigerian soldiers and also included Ghanaian and Guinean troops. As ECOMOG, it had originally been formed to intervene in the Liberian civil war, a conflict which ended in its withdrawal and the rebels’ backer, Charles Taylor, taking power in Monrovia.
• During this time Sandline, the British security company, facilitated a controversial arms shipment to the Kabbah government in exile. This was technically in contravention of the UN weapons embargo against Sierra Leone and caused the British government severe embarrassment. Concurrently, the local manager of one of the biggest diamond mining licensees in Sierra Leone had been seconded – apparently in his capacity as a private individual – to Sandline.
• Stripped of its armed forces by the AFRC coup, the government was left with only a small group of loyal militia called the Kamajohs, who employed a controversial mix of traditional fetishism and modern weapons. President Kabbah engaged Executive Outcomes, a private security firm to supply 200 foreign professional soldiers to lead the Kamajohs and fight beside ECOMOG. Freetown was retaken in March 1998 and by April, Kabbah was reinstated as President.
• Many of the defeated junta were captured, tried and eventually executed. Those of the AFRC who escaped, retreated to the bush where they formed an uneasy alliance with the RUF and continued to terrorize the countryside and destroy the infrastructure. Both rebel armies financed their participation in the war by mining diamonds, smuggling them out through Liberia to the waiting hands of willing Western mineral buyers.
• With little diamond potential of its own, Liberia’s dealings in smuggled diamonds had been a major concern to successive Sierra Leone governments since the first diamond rush of the 1950s. What was different and more sinister after 1991 was the active involvement of official Liberian interests in Sierra Leone’s brutal war. Without an ideology, the purpose could only be construed as that of pillage rather than politics.
• By the end of the 1990s, Liberia had become a major center for massive diamond-related criminal activity connected to guns, drugs and money laundering throughout Africa and further afield. In return for diamonds, the RUF and later the AFRC, procured weapons and logistical support through Monrovia.
• On the 6th January 1999, the rebels took much of Freetown after rumors of an imminent attack were ignored. Caught on the back foot, ECOMOG and the Kamajohs fought hard to recapture the capital. Before the rebels could be forced out of the city, much of it was destroyed. ECOMOG then embarked upon a campaign of brutal reprisals confirming them as participants in the conflict rather than interventionists on behalf of peace.
• By July 1999 all parties agreed to and signed a regionally brokered cease-fire. This agreement was called the Lome Accord. It included an amnesty for all crimes and human rights abuses committed during the civil war and provided the framework for a program of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of all participants in the conflict. The rebel leaders, Sankoh (RUF) and Koroma (AFRC), returned to Freetown and took up cabinet posts in a transitional government headed by Kabbah which will administer the country until a general election in 2001.
• In October 1999, in recognition of the Lome cease-fire, the United Nations Security Council voted to deploy a multinational peacekeeping force consisting of Indian, Kenyan and Nigerian elements. Their job is to oversee the DDR program and provide security for the fragile coalition government whilst a new army and police force is formed.