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To catch a despot

  • 30 April 2012

Former 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