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NYT says Charles Taylor Conviction is ‘a watershed case for modern human rights law’

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Charles Taylor in court at his war crimes trial in The Hague. Photograph: Reuters

On the front page of today’s New York Times is a story about how former Liberian President Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years of prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity which he committed in the Sierra Leone civil war that lasted from 1991-2002, and which resulted in the deaths of around 50,000 people.

The article, “Ex-Liberian Leader Gets 50 Years for War Crimes,” written by Marlise Simons and J. David Goodman, says the conviction was “a watershed case for modern human rights law,” and that “Mr. Taylor was the first former head of state convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials in Germany after World War II.”

The article even quotes a Sierra Leone politician, Ibrahim Sorie, who was present at the sentencing, as saying, “It restores our faith in the rule of law, and we see that impunity is ending for top people.”

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to not have “faith in the rule of law,” or to believe “that impunity is ending for top people.” Because all you have to do is look and see if criminal leaders from other sides of the Sierra Leone conflict are being held accountable. Sort of, but not really. Those who the West backed, like the government forces, were never indicted or tried, even though they too committed serious crimes.

Furthermore, the trial revealed that, starting in the 1980s, Charles Taylor worked for the CIA. This gets confirmed by the U.S. when, in the trials proceedings, Taylor tells his life story. He talked about how he fled to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, and how the CIA helped him break out of jail, where he then went back to Liberia to start a war. Simons’ and Goodman’s article make no mention of this fact—even though Simons reported on this in 2009. So while Taylor was busy starting a much deadlier war in Liberia, which killed around 200,000 people, those crimes were never prosecuted.

This is much like Saddam Hussein. A former ally of the United States, he is supported through the worst of his crimes. When he attacked Iran in 1980, the U.S. provided military and political support. But when his usefulness was worn out, he quickly became the epitome of evil and had to be brought to justice. And much like Taylor, Saddam’s trial was carefully crafted to avoid embarrassments. A memo to former Iraqi Prime Minister al-Jafari which was published in Foreign Policy magazine in July of 2005 states, “The special tribunal is full of legal holes and is tainted by American influence,” and that,

Erase the American Footprint: There is no denying that the IST is an American creation. The now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority established the tribunal in consultation with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Its statute allows the appointment of foreign judges to the tribunal and mandates the presence of international observers. No foreign judges have yet been appointed, but the possibility is being seriously considered. The possibility itself is an insult to Iraqis. Even in Europe, which is increasingly bound together legally and culturally, it would be unacceptable to have, for example, a French judge on the bench for a German criminal trial.

The tribunals statute was drafted in English and modeled on the American adversarial legal system. The U.S. government provided $75 million and dispatched teams of prosecutors and investigators to help the tribunal prepare for the trials of senior regime officials. These American officials are dedicated, but they know little about Iraqs legal traditions. The tribunals provenance and the presence of American personnel have fostered the view that it serves U.S. rather than Iraqi interests.

And even if you go back to Times articles about the Liberian civil war at the time you see a differential treatment towards Taylor. When he was still a CIA asset.

In the article “Strategic Interests Tie U.S. to Liberia,” which was published on June 13, 1990, the NYT notes that, “even as American officials privately voice criticism of the nation’s embattled President [Doe],” Washington was finding it difficult to cut ties because “strategic interests tie Washington to the Liberian crisis” in the form of “landing and refueling rights for military aircraft and ships on 24-hour notice, the only nation in sub-Saharan Africa that accords Washington such rights,” as well as “a navigational station that emits low-frequency signals that guide ships and aircraft in the Atlantic.”

On one hand the U.S. is backing both sides of the conflict. President Doe was provided “$500 million worth of military and economic aid between 1980 and 1985,” but the relationship was becoming strained. So as rebel forces led by Taylor make ground we begin to see attitudes quickly change at the “paper of record.”

In “Rebel Forces in Liberia Surround the Capital and Begin an Attack,” which was published on July 3, 1990, it is reported that, “Mr. Taylor, who has accused General Doe’s Government of brutality and large-scale corruption, has promised a thorough political house-cleaning but has equivocated about his intention to hold national elections.”

For Washington insiders this is music to their ears. Again, a CIA asset is deriding the government of “brutality and large-scale corruption” while promising “to hold national elections” if only he can get in power.

Then on August 21 of the same year the Times publishes the article “Some Liberians Accuse the U.S. of Betrayal,” which notes that the Bush administration “has made clear it will not intervene militarily to end the civil war” even while “daily fighting between the factions led by Mr. Taylor and by Prince Johnson and the forces loyal to President Doe has resulted in massacres of thousands of civilians.”

It is not until Charles Taylor gets on the wrong side of conflicts that he becomes a criminal who must be brought to justice. When Taylor’s forces go to Sierra Leone and fight against the Western-backed government it is much like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. A line was crossed. Now that Taylor is our enemy Simons and Goodman inform us about “a secret bonding ritual in Liberia during which [an aide who testified to the court that] he and others joined Mr. Taylor in eating a human heart.”

The differential treatment also shows in the trial of Taylor, who got a fifty-year sentence. While Simons and Goodman report that “the tribunal is to be shut down,” it’s worth noting that not one government official was indicted or tried, despite the fact that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created before the the Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up, and in their findings they note that, “All factions specifically targeted civilians.” It wasn’t just those who weren’t on the West’s side, like Charles Taylor. Even the Western-backed government forces were found to be “responsible for systematically plundering and looting” and “for either authorising or instigating human rights violations against civilians.”

This is the “watershed case for modern human rights law” which is supposed to have restored “our faith in the rule of law,” and where “we see that impunity is ending for top people”: only those not allied with the West are tried. This is not an exception. This is the norm. To date, not one ally of the U.S. has been indicted at the ICC. Not one. And certainly not leaders from the U.S. itself.

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