Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, displayed a talent for troublemaking from a young age. Convicted on April 26 by a United Nations-backed tribunal for numerous counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Taylor appears to have kept up his bad behavior for most of his 64 years.
As a boy in rural Liberia, he was expelled from school after dropping his pants in the classroom, chasing girls and urinating in the schoolyard, says a recent book by Colin M. Waugh on the Liberian leader.
Taylor has since been accused of everything from insurance scams and taking kickbacks to eating human hearts as part of a secret society ritual, Waugh said in his late-2011 book, “Charles Taylor and Liberia: Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone Star State.” The Special Court for Sierra Leone is trying Taylor on charges that include murder, rape, terrorizing civilians, enslavement, recruiting child soldiers, mutilation and beatings, looting and sexual slavery.
The UN and Sierra Leone, Liberia’s neighbor to the north, set up the tribunal in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, to try those most responsible for heinous international crimes during its long and exceptionally brutal civil war, which ended in 2002 and killed an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 people.
The charges against Taylor, the first African leader to go before an international tribunal, center on his role in an illegal global trade in so-called “blood diamonds.” Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, a rebel movement driven more by money than ideology, allegedly seized the country’s diamond fields and funneled the gems to Taylor, who sold them to finance the group’s military campaign while lining his own pockets.
The guilty verdict came after a trial that spanned nearly five years and was held in a special courtroom in The Hague for security reasons. Taylor has been detained in The Hague since 2006.
Judges during the trial heard from 91 prosecution witnesses and 20 defense witnesses, including Taylor himself, who denied the charges but admitted some illegal acts outside the court’s jurisdiction.
“Both [ex-US President] George Bush and [British former Prime Minister] Tony Blair have invaded countries, hundreds of thousands were murdered and Bush admitted to approving torture and so-called targeted killings. When will they be brought to justice? This whole idea of justice internationally can only be proper if it is without borders,” he testified.
Taylor spent a number of years getting an education in the United States as a young man, but returned to Liberia in 1980 to serve as its top procurement official under President Samuel K. Doe, who had just seized power in a coup d’état. By 1983, however, colleagues had begun sniffing out evidence of Taylor’s corrupt management style, and he fled his homeland to the US again.
When Liberia issued a warrant for his arrest, he was grabbed by the FBI and jailed in Plymouth, Mass.
He managed to escape from his cell in 1985, though, later he insisted he got help from the US government, which may have preferred him to the tyrannical Doe. Taylor fled to Mexico and eventually made it back to Liberia, in time to start up his own rebel movement.
After Doe was murdered by a rival rebel group in 1990 and a transitional government set up with outside help, Taylor and his supporters seized most of the country’s interior and waited for their chance to move on Monrovia. He was soon illegally marketing Liberia’s iron ore, timber and rubber and using the proceeds to finance his military and political activities.
Eventually, West African peacekeepers established a shaky truce in Liberia and elections were held in 1997. Taylor was elected president with more than 75 percent of the vote, stunning the West, which considered him a brutal warlord and human rights abuser.
Finishing a distant second was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who left the country after her loss but ultimately returned to win a 2005 presidential election, held two years after Taylor was forced from office and into exile in Nigeria.
Taylor used his presidency to elevate Liberia’s reputation for corruption and thuggery to new heights. Because the Revolutionary United Front had helped him win control of Liberia, he teamed up with its campaign to do the same in Sierra Leone, arming the Front’s struggle —while enriching himself and his supporters — by selling the diamonds its rebel fighters were stealing from the government land they had occupied.
The rebel movement soon became infamous for its heart-stopping use of drug-addled child soldiers, rape, pillaging and sexual slavery as weapons of war and its fighters’ penchant for hacking off limbs, ears and noses to intimidate civilians.
International outrage soared. But Taylor agreed to resign the presidency and go into exile in Nigeria only because he faced imminent defeat from yet another rebel movement closing in on Monrovia, with him in its crosshairs. Although the Special Court had indicted him five months earlier, Taylor thought Nigeria’s leaders would shield him from prosecution, and this proved to be the case for two years.
But Sirleaf, after her 2005 election victory, pressed Nigeria to turn him over to the court. Suddenly sensing himself vulnerable, Taylor tried to escape Nigeria in 2006 but was caught at the border and ultimately turned over to the International Criminal Court, which held him until arrangements for his trial in The Hague were completed in June 2007.
A Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its final report issued in 2009, included Sirleaf’s name in a list of 49 people that should be barred from public office for 30 years because of her early support for Taylor’s political faction. Sirleaf apologized, insisting she had become his “strong opponent” after learning “the true nature” of his intentions. A court later concluded the commission’s report was not binding on the named individuals, and Sirleaf was re-elected in 2011, days after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. (She shared it with two other women, a Liberian activist named Leymah Gbowee, and a Yemeni activist, Tawakkul Karman.)
Sadly, whether or not Taylor is convicted in the marathon trial at The Hague, he will go unpunished for any crimes against Liberia and its people. Based on restrictions imposed on the Special Court’s reach by the UN Security Council and the court itself, the tribunal can look only at crimes committed in Sierra Leone after Nov. 30, 1998.
“[W]hile doubtless of strong relevance and equally abhorrent in their nature, any war crimes or breaches of humanitarian law he may have committed in his own country were outside the legal remit of the court,” Waugh pointed out in his book. Even within that remit, “the prosecution faced an uphill task in proving Taylor’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt in the charges against him.”
But even if he is found guilty, Liberians “can be forgiven for asking what their country has gained from the lengthy but nevertheless token justice that has been served in Liberia and the region,” Waugh wrote.
The conviction of a single Liberian by an international court “will not be a sufficient foundation for building a more just society with respect for human rights and the rule of law,” he concluded. “Whatever the conclusion of the Charles Taylor trial, there will still be neither closure, nor healing nor justice for Liberians, and for many their period of trauma will continue.”
[This article was updated on April 26.]
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.