The Message of the Charles Taylor Conviction: Don’t Cross Us

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By Stephen Gowans
April 28, 2012

Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, whose name may forevermore be associated with amputees, child soldiers and blood diamonds, was convicted last week on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an ad hoc tribunal financed by Western nations.

The US State Department hailed the convictions for “sending a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable.”

Taylor was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone on a long list of atrocities, including acts of terrorism; murder; rape; sexual slavery; outrages upon personal dignity; cruel treatment; inhumane acts; recruiting child soldiers; enslavement; and pillage.

With multiple convictions for atrocities of unspeakable infamy, the former Liberian leader must surely personify an evil whose depths few men have plumbed.

Except there’s a fatal flaw in this picture. Taylor committed none of the crimes for which he was convicted—a reality the Court freely acknowledges.

In its April 26 press release announcing Taylor’s convictions, the Court concedes that “the Prosecution had not alleged that Mr. Taylor had committed these crimes in person” but that he had “aided and abetted the rebels (the crimes’ perpetrators) by providing them with arms and ammunition, military personnel, operational support and moral support.” His support of the rebels, the Court concluded, made Taylor “individually responsible for their crimes.”

In other words, Taylor was convicted of doing what the president of the United States, the prime minister of Britain, and the president of France recently did in Libya: arming and supporting an atrocity-committing rebel group.

While we might quibble about whether the atrocities committed by the Libyan rebels were on a greater or lesser scale than those committed by the Taylor-backed rebels in Sierra Leone, there is no question that Nato’s rebels did indeed commit atrocities. According to Amnesty International, they “abducted, arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed” their way through the rebellion, while reducing the city of Sirte to rubble through indiscriminate shelling, a war crime.

In a world in which the rule of law was not simply the law of those who rule, the rebels would be charged with multiple counts of murder, acts of terrorism, outrages upon personal dignity, cruel treatment, and inhumane acts. And while these crimes were not committed personally by Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy, or by lesser Nato leaders either, by the logic of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, they are all individually responsible for these crimes, for they aided and abetted the rebels, furnished them with arms and ammunition, gave them military personnel, provided operational support and supported them morally.

All the same, there will be no Special Court for Libya to prosecute the rebel’s backers, and neither will there be indictments against Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy by the International Criminal Court.

None of this will happen, not because Western leaders are innocent of these crimes, or of crimes on an even greater scale, but because they control the courts.

The US State Department’s assurance that Taylor’s conviction will send a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable, is sheer nonsense.

Nato’s leaders haven’t been held accountable for their atrocities in the courts they control, and won’t be, for obvious reasons.

But they will be held accountable ultimately by their victims, and by the people whose sweat they’ve plundered to pay for their crimes—you and me.

Taylor’s crime was that he backed the wrong side. Had he funnelled arms, military support, operational support and moral support to rebels who worked to advance the project of Western imperialism, as say Qatari leader Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s did in Libya, he would have been feted by the US State Department as a great ally, a champion of freedom.

Instead, he crossed the line of imperial subservience, and for this will bear a reputation for infamy far in excess of the true infamy of his actions.

Don’t cross us. That is the message the Court has sent.

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