Charles Taylor left Liberia in style. Dressed all in white, promising a crowd of adoring supporters he would one day return, Taylor boarded a private jet to Nigeria where a comfortable life in exile awaited.
Taylor’s departure – part of an internationally-backed agreement – enabled Liberia, a country devastated by civil war, to start on the bumpy road to democracy. Elections two years later brought in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state and future Nobel Peace Prize winner. It was with Johnson Sirleaf’s blessing that the deal was undone. In 2006 she agreed that Taylor could face charges after all.
He fled his villa in Calabar, southern Nigeria, but was arrested on the border trying to escape into Cameroon and was shipped off to Liberia, then onto the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown.
Taylor’s conviction is a seminal moment in international law – it is the first time since the Nuremberg trials that a former head of state has been found guilty of war crimes by an international court (Slobodan Milsoevic died before a judgment was issued). Human rights groups and lawyers are already suggesting the conviction could put pressure on other leaders, from Syria to Russia, who have been accused of crimes against humanity. International justice is still in its infancy but Taylor’s trial shows that it can work.
The nature of Taylor’s arrest though, suggests the lessons will not all be positive.
Peace and justice are two very different beasts that do not necessarily sit comfortably together. From Northern Ireland to South Africa, justice – in the traditional sense of trials and prison sentences – has been jettisoned for peace. In far too many other conflicts, the international community’s demands for justice have made peace elusive.
Any would-be warlord now knows not to trust the words of international peacemakers offering immunity and exile – you can only play that card once. In central Africa Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has refused to sign numerous peace deals while an International Criminal Court indictment hangs over him. Meanwhile in Sudan Omar al-Bashir knows the only way he avoids being sent to The Hague is to do whatever it takes to remain in power. Bashar al-Assad knows this too. And you can be certain that Vladimir Putin is aware that not everyone has forgotten what happened in Chechnya.
The battle between peace and justice is one we don’t like to think exists. We would rather not have to consider putting one above the other. In certain cases we don’t have to – Taylor’s arrest, trial and conviction has turned out to be the right thing for both Sierra Leone and Liberia. But one cannot say with any certainty that the indictment of Bashir will prove to be similarly successful.
As we celebrate the fact that Taylor will almost certainly spend the rest of his life behind bars, let’s not assume that any other warlords will be joining him in prison soon.