The interesting thing about Charles Taylor

Human rights groups love the vanquisihing of a (former) bloody dictator. It sends a crystal clear message to those other vagabonds that might be tempted to also commit these dastardly acts: such behaviour will not be tolerated.

The objective of international justice, after all, is not to imprison as many scoundrels as possible, but to send out a warning signal to future would-be warlords that the same thing could happen to them, should they persist. Just looking at the forlorn figure of the middle-aged Charles Taylor* being asked to stand whilst the judge reads out his guilty verdict – well, if I was a war criminal, it might at least give me brief pause for thought.

I’m actually not at all convinced that international justice works as a deterrent, and this is certainly yet to be proved. It would of course be nice if it did deter war criminals, but I think the thing that really works is to develop the infrastructure and wealth creation that strip violent rebel groups of all credibility. It’s the old argument against the death penalty. Kill all people that you catch stealing a loaf of bread, and they’ll be less break-ins at bakeries. Kill all mass-murderers – well, when you get to that level, you’re not necessarily thinking about what will happen if you get caught. The jungle of Africa can seem a mighty long away from the drab grey skies of The Hague.

But, in all the grandstanding and trumpeting that this is a historic day (which, to be fair, it is, Taylor being the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court, since Nuremburg**), what has been lost is the fact that a lot of what Taylor was accused of was actually thrown out by the judges.

In particular, Taylor was convicted of “aiding and abetting” the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) when it tried to topple the Sierra Leonean government rather than the potentially more serious charge of “control-and-command”. In other words, he supplied the rebel soldiers with guns, in return for diamonds, but not plan and co-ordinate attacks, nor did he have any control over members of the RUF.

The problem is, as various jurisprudence notes, particularly from the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals, is that such a high burden of proof is needed to convict someone of command-responsibility that only very rarely they are.

Oh dear. Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo and prize catch of the ICC (or at least he was until they nabbed the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo), has been indicted with exactly this crime: that he didn’t exert proper authority over soldiers operating under his authority in the Central African Republic. Furthermore, like the Charles Taylor case, Gbagbo is a citizen of one country, but charged with committing crimes in another.

So, human rights groups might jump for joy that Taylor has been found guilty – and I am glad to think that some measure of justice has been done. But let’s not forget that, if we’re talking impact on international justice, the possibility of a conviction against Bemba has just slipped back a notch.

(If you’ll permit me a brief adendum, my colleague Simon Jennings has just written a good Q&A about the Taylor case, where he does cover the issue of command responsibility quite well).

* Charles Taylor was convicted by the Special Court of Sierra Leone and NOT the Internatioanl Criminal Court. The number of times I have read the latter, often in exceedingly well-established media sources… well it does make me wonder about the calibre of journalists being produced these days.

** I initially hesitated in adding the “since Nuremberg” qualifier to defining Taylor as the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court, since I honestly couldn’t recall who at Nuremberg had been a former head of state. And I certainly didn’t want to fall into the trap of other journalists, just repeating a statement because it’s in all the other media. So I did a bit of research. Well, Hitler’s predecessor, Franz von Papen, was tried and then acquitted. However, the former chancellor of Austria, Arthur Seyss-Inquart (who later became Reich Commissioner for the Netherlands), was convicted and hung in 1946. So I guess that was the guy.

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