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To catch a despot


Charles TaylorFormer Liberian president Charles Taylor (pictured) has become the first head of state since World War II to be convicted by an international criminal court.

The charges were brutal in their scope and grave in their execution — war crimes and crimes against humanity for the arming of Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for what have come to be known as 'blood diamonds'. Those diamonds obtained their grim appellation given the way they were mined and traded, a product of slave labour.

Taylor was found guilty of aiding and abetting 11 crimes connected with the rebel Revolutionary United Front between 1996 and 2002. The RUF was found responsible for a miscellany of acts — sexual slavery, murder, rape and forced amputations. The finding concluded four years of hearings at the special court for Sierra Leone.

Victims turned up to see the proceedings. One was Edward Songo Conteh of the Amputee and War Wounded Association from Sierra Leone. His hands had been removed, the handiwork of child soldiers. 'I want to see this man behind bars for the rest of his life,' he said.

This is the first the conviction of a head of state since the Nuremberg tribunals of Admiral Karl Dönitz, who led Nazi Germany for a brief period in 1945. As Human Rights Watch has opined with a degree of satisfaction, 'In this trial, for the first time, such a 'big man' was taken into custody and forced to answer for his alleged crimes.'

But there remain problems with bringing heads of state to trial for grave crimes. While we can see the cruel outcomes of unjust policy, the circumstances of their execution tend to be vague. The absence of coherent paper trails suggests a recurring pattern between battlefield atrocities and the boardroom where plans are hatched.

While despots such as Stalin and his henchmen made a habit of penning signatures to mass death sentences (for them, the signature was historically noble and affirming), Taylor was of the slippery sort, shying away from any clear expression of control. The three-judge panel could not, therefore, assume command responsibility. Nor could it identify a joint enterprise with the paramilitary groups.

We encounter similar problems when debating, for example, whether Emperor Hirohito would be tried for war crimes after Japan's defeat. The standard line offered by 'Japanists' in the US State Department was that the Tenno was purely ceremonial, a figurehead with minimal agency. If he did exercise agential powers, it was to prevent, not initiate, war. That he failed to do so could be taken as a sign of admirable impotence.

In time, the emperor's role in the war was transformed in the discourse of Cold War politics from an arch aggressor keen on international conquest to, as US chief prosecutor Joseph Keenan would claim, 'a man of peace' who attempted to rein in the militarists. He was a cultured man, a friend of the west, as a Newsweek editorial from 1945 was at pains to point out.

Taylor's self-portrait for the judges has been similarly one of the peacemaker and cultured, well-attired victim. In Liberia, he has long been seen as an opponent of neo-colonialism and as a one time freedom fighter. International politics, as ever, remains a murky and treacherous field.

Even after a head of state is nabbed — in Taylor's case, that proved formidable and time consuming — the international community remains divided as to how best to stage a trial, if at all. Would such a trial martyr the suspect in question? Might a revolution not take place as a result of it?

The Allied authorities not only refused to try Hirohito in 1945 but allowed him to remain in office for fear of an explosion. 'Speaking entirely in my personal capacity,' recalled a chief American advisor to the mission, William J. Sebald, 'abdication would be politically disastrous.' Similarly, emperor Wilhelm II of Germany was allowed to go into quiet exile in the Netherlands in 1919 to avoid encouraging Germany going Bolshevik.

In Taylor's case, the trial was held in The Hague, much to the fury of Sierra Leone, for fear that it would destabilise the entire region.

Whether this conviction gives traction to efforts to place world leaders before an international criminal jurisdiction remains an open, perhaps even unanswerable question.

Individuals such as Omar al-Bashir, accused of genocide in Darfur, Sudan, remain indifferent, if not openly defiant of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. He is bright enough to realise that the waters of international law and accountability are muddy, and in need of a good cleansing.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Liberia, Charles Taylor, despots, crimes against humanity



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Existing comments

Given the self-congratulatory statements by Bush, Obama and heads of the Coalition of the Willing, wouldn't be too hard to amass evidence to try them for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan...particularly for the epidemic of mutated babies born as a result of depleted uranium weaponry.

Vacy Vlazna | 30 April 2012  

Yes, and there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed... The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal indicted and convicted ten Nazi leaders for "encouraging and compelling abortions," an act which the Tribunal characterised as "a crime against humanity." As with their other crimes against humanity, the Nazis protested that "we were just following orders." Lieutenant General Richard Hildebrandt, the SS (Schutzstaffel) Chief of the RKFVD's Race and Settlement Office in Berlin, stated that "Up to now nobody had the idea to see in this interruption of pregnancy a crime against humanity." - Nuremberg Military Tribunals,IV:1081-84. Nuremberg: NO-3512.

Myra | 01 May 2012  

----- Please consider : Obama is a Eugenist. Eugenists push abortion,euthanasia,assisted suicide,mercy killing,contraceptive rights as the human right of all women. Planned Parenthood and HHS are evil entities that exist and have nothing to to with the ideals of their so called titles. Eugenic ethics are the policies that have become the false religion that all must accept like it or not. Death to all the weak in society as cost effectiveness is the bottom line for the Eugenic Mandate. insurance is not anyone's assurance that they are going to get good healthcare anymore. HIPPA is the way to make all healthcare policies that are insincere and incompetent,even criminal a protection for not allowing any health information available to the public that would make them angry enough to sue the healthcare system for their contrived and protected forms of simple and plain malpractice. Eugenics is the way to be God and to decide through the healthcare system who is to receive medical care and who will not as it would be too expensive,not cost effective. Human life is to become an investment with an expected return for value if they are to receive quality healthcare. The elderly will not get healthcare of any quality in the future if the have progressively degenerative diseases such as stroke victims and the like. Those who are a drain on Medicare and Medicaid and are too expensive to maintain will be mandated for termination. Obama healthcare is to become death care legally sanctioned as a protected right. Welcome to Sparta-- Letter found on line a few days ago.------Now, Please consider : Referring to the human rights abuses and violence in a number of countries around the world, Obama announced new steps to prevent and respond to mass atrocities. The Atrocities Prevention Board, established by Obama, and comprising officials across the government, is convening for the first time today. In addition, the president announced that the intelligence community will prepare "the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the risk of mass atrocities and genocide." AJC's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights has been a leading advocate for such a governmental initiative. "In short, we need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these kinds of atrocities - because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people," said Obama. SOURCE American Jewish Committee. AJC Applaudes U.S Presidenial Award to Jan Karski, Commitment to Prevent Genocide. New York April 23-2012---- Is no further comment necessary?

Myra | 02 May 2012  

Maybe the attrocities of Generals Franco and Pinochet will soon be addressed, somehow these two seem to have been able to avoid accountability for their breaches of human rights. Maybe the Confessional had something to do with it.

L. Newington | 05 May 2012  

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