Lessons Learned from Former Liberian President’s War Crimes Conviction
Yesterday an international tribunal announced a guilty verdict against Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, on 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes during Sierra Leone’s civil war. The verdict is a monumental step for international prosecutions of human rights violators: not only does it mark the first conviction of a head of state since the Nuremberg tribunals after World War II, but it also marks the conviction of a vicious enabler of atrocities. Taylor was a central figure in the conflict, profiting on the slaughter of an estimated 50,000 people. Beyond reportedly orchestrating atrocities, Taylor also sold weapons, ammunition, and communications equipment to rebel leaders in Sierra Leone in exchange for “blood diamonds.” Using Taylor’s supplies, the rebels captured children, rendered them delusional with narcotics, gave them weapons, and ordered them to brutalize the civilian population. The civil war also directly resulted in the first major global effort to curb an atrocity supply chain. The Kimberley Process, a certification program started in 2003 aimed at ensuring diamonds entering the global markets are conflict-free, represented an international recognition of the role economic supply chains can play in exacerbating and prolonging conflicts and atrocities. Beyond just Taylor and those dealing in blood diamonds, another large group of enablers bear responsibility for supporting the vicious Sierra Leone rebels. For instance, as Human Rights First discussed last year, Slobodan Tesic evaded an international arms embargo to provide Taylor with “enough bullets to kill the entire population of Liberia.” Leonid Minin enjoyed a “close relationship” with Taylor and funneled hundreds of tons of weapons into the area. The notorious Viktor Bout also sold arms to Taylor in contravention of international sanctions. Very few of these enablers have been brought to justice. Further, the legal vacuums they exploited in Sierra Leone still exist. Worldwide, enablers operate with impunity, sustaining atrocities, including some of the most abhorrent crimes of our time. The lessons from Sierra Leone should not be forgotten: these channels must be closed, and those who fuel atrocities held accountable. Here at home, the Obama Administration is beginning to take steps to target and disrupt the activities of enablers. On Monday, the President issued an Executive Order setting out a new set of punitive measures against those who commit or facilitate grave human rights abuses via information technology in Syria and Iran. The sanctions are a novel tool, allowing the United States to target not just those who carry out widespread and systematic attacks on civilians but also those who support them with technology used to monitor, track, and target people. The Administration should continue utilizing tools like these to effectively combat the enablers of atrocities.