TOPICS: Can this war-crimes court get it right?

How effective are war-crimes courts at demonstrating that no one, regardless of his position, is above the law? Many rights activists had hoped that — after their disappointment with the trials of Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, under way in The Hague, could finally send the “right” deterrent message to other potentially abusive national leaders.

If this does happen, then it won’t be happening anytime soon. Last Monday, judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), which is trying Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, confirmed that they’ve postponed the trial until Aug. 20. Taylor had previously sacked one lawyer the court had assigned to him. He wanted to defend himself, just as Milosevic did. But the SCSL judges clearly feared he would imitate the time-wasting and grandstanding that Milosevic engaged in. So they’ve assigned Taylor new lawyers and have given them several weeks to prepare. (It’s still unclear whether Taylor will cooperate.)

Like all criminal defendants, Taylor should be considered innocent until he is proven guilty. But there is much strong evidence against him. In 1989, he launched an armed uprising in his native Liberia and he soon emerged as a powerful and brutal participant in the civil war that then laid waste to the country. In 1996, the civil war officially ended, and, in the presidential election held in 1997, Taylor won a strong victory. Even after he became president, he continued to act like a warlord, abusing the citizenry and selling vast amounts of Liberia’s natural resources for personal gain. (US evangelist Pat Robertson was one close business partner.)

Taylor also gave allegedly strong support to participants in the civil war roiling neighbouring Sierra Leone. It was for those acts that the SCSL indicted him. In July 2003, President Bush started calling openly for his ouster. That August, the Nigerian president offered Taylor a safe haven there — provided he agree to stay out of Liberian politics. Taylor took up the offer. Then, in 2006, just before Bush visited Nigeria, the Nigerian authorities arrested Taylor, and the UN took him for trial at the SCSL.

It is good that Taylor’s capacity to cause them further harm has, for now, been severely curtailed. But there are other ways that outcome can be achieved. For example, peace negotiators in northern Uganda are seeking to reintegrate their worst local warlord, Joseph Kony, back into normal society, much as Abraham Lincoln did with the US’s Southern rebels after the civil war. (That approach has worked well in other places, including Mozambique and South Africa.) Unless Sierra Leoneans can build a peaceful order, other warlords will emerge there in the future.

Events in the well-funded Hague courtroom may all seem very distant from the concerns of the Sierra Leoneans, who are still reeling from the impoverishment, mass killings, and dislocations inflicted on them. — The Christian Science Monitor