The high stakes of the Taylor trial

A fascinating new phase in the trial of Charles Taylor, Liberian warlord and President of his country from 1997 to 2003, is underway. Following 18 months of proceedings, the defense case for Taylor – charged by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) with 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations of international humanitarian law, to which he pleaded non guilty – began on July 13.  This has been getting some international media attention. As noted by contributors to the Trial of Charles Taylor blog, a project of the Open Society Institute:

“[Taylor] is the first sitting African head of state to be indicted and prosecuted for his alleged responsibility for some of the worst crimes known to humanity, the laser beam of international attention will zero in as he tells his side of the story.” 

International attention, however, has been more like a faint gleam than a “laser beam”, and I have yet to find commentary that focuses on what, as far as I’m concerned, seems to be the most significant aspect of these historic proceedings – the fact that, if Taylor is found guilty, this trial will set a critical precedent in international law. Indeed, while there have been past indictments – and even convictions – for war crimes and crimes against humanity, no head of state has yet to be found personally responsible for atrocities committed during his or her tenure.

In this post, I won’t be discussing the history and specifics of what led to Taylor and a dozen other war criminals to be indicted by the SCSL – suffice it to say that there is ample evidence (in spite of Taylor’s pleading not guilty and his vehement denial of charges during his opening statement) that these individuals committed unbelievable atrocities in the context of the Sierra Leone conflict. (A key prosecution witness, Joseph Marzah, described how Taylor allegedly encouraged – even ordered – the killing of women and children or the eating of human flesh). 

Above all else, I believe it is crucial to highlight the importance of Taylor’s trial not only for Sierra Leone, and more generally the West African region, but also the implications for international law and the international criminal justice system specifically.

In the case of Charles Taylor, the fact that the charges against him are explicitely linked to his involvement in the conflict in Sierra Leone – and not Liberia, the country he presided over for 7 years – complicates the picture. Stephen Rapp, the prosecutor of the SCSL, has to prove Taylor’s personal, criminal responsibility in the events that unfolded in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002, when the civil war came to an end. Including Taylor’s, the court has brought 13 indictments against individuals who “bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996.” 

So far, three guilty verdicts have been pronounced against former rebel leaders, with sentences ranging from 15 to 52 years – out of the three judgments, one may still be appealed. It should also be noted that four of the 13 indicted have either died or are presumed dead, leaving nine individuals in the custody of the SCSL. 

One might wonder, then, what purpose might the conviction of Charles Taylor and a dozen others serve? Particularly as so few of those who perpetrated atrocities in Sierra Leone are being tried, will all these lengthy, costly legal procedures provide any solace for the victims of the conflict? Will justice be served? What, if anything, would the sentencing of war criminals achieve for Sierra Leone? for West Africa? for international justice? 

The Special Court for Sierra Leone prides itself on contributing to the re-establishment of the rule in law in the country – in addition to court proceedings, the SCSL also facilitates capacity-building for judges, legal experts and lawyers. And, indeed, the judicial institutions of Sierra Leone are being strengthened thanks to the SCSL. Beyond this, of course, the main objective of the SCSL is to bring justice to the people of Sierra Leone. Already, legal proceedings have yielded a number of firsts and have established important precedents. The Special Court:

  • Was the first to rule that national amnesty does not apply to the prosecution of international crimes, and was the first court to adjudicate the limitations of immunity by a head of state before an international criminal court.   
  • Was the first to enter convictions for the forcible recruitment and use of child soldiers for acts of terrorism in a non-international armed conflict and for the crime of attacks on UN peacekeepers.   
  • Also pronounced the first-ever convictions on the charge of sexual slavery and forced marriage as crimes against humanity. 

However, despite this important jurisprudence and the benefits to the local judicial system, many argue that the SCSL – as well as other international criminal courts – can make the process of reconciliation much more difficult and that, ultimately, convicting and sentencing war criminals achieves little for the victims. 

I, on the contrary, believe that the sentencing of war criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity is fundamentally important. In addition to the signifcant advances for Sierra Leone’s judicial system listed above, should Taylor be found guilty, it would set the standard for accountability and send a clear signal to current and former heads of state that a culture of impunity will not be tolerated by the international community. As prosecutor Stephen Rapp notes, “this is an enormous test for international justice.”

With Taylor’s trial, the stakes are high – the former president still has a strong following in West Africa, and no clear popular consensus has emerged around the man who (in)famously ran for president in 1996 with the slogan “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.” A conviction would at least contribute to the delegitimization of movements supporting him – which, in a still fragile Liberia, will be critical to the country’s long term political stabilization. 

Particularly as heads of state like Bashir in Sudan, Mugabe in Zimbabwe or even the military junta in Burma, continue to oppress and victimize their populations, the ever growing jurisprudence reinforcing the international justice system would receive an adrenaline shot should Taylor be sentenced. 

As with the prosecution by the ICC of Thomas Lubanga for his crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many claim that the international media and public attention detract from the validity of the proceedings. As Catherine Mabille, Lubanga’s head defense lawyer notes: “In the press he is already convicted, convicted before being tried. And in the eyes of a vast majority, as soon as there is an arrest warrant and as soon as the charges are confirmed and the matter is committed to trial, the presumption of innocence disappears.”  

However, all those indicted by international criminal courts, including Taylor, are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and given a chance to present their side of the story. For all intents and purposes, they are guaranteed a fair trial. This is especially true, given that, as mentioned previously, the media and public opinion are not nearly as mobilized as they could be – frankly, even searching for material to compose this blog post, I was surprised by how little analysis and commentary Taylor’s trial has generated (leading me to conclude that Lubanga’s defense lawyer may be slightly delusional.)

Considering how many times throughout history leaders have abused, oppressed, manipulated and murdered their own populations, the need to establish a standard for accountability is of paramount importance. For now, even as the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest, he remains free to roam around the African continent (having already made several trips abroad since the warrant was issued), as the African Union decided not to honor the warrant for his arrest… 

(In an interesting twist of fate, it’s worth noting that Taylor’s son, Chucky Taylor, was convicted of torture last year, in the first prosecution under the United States’ Extraterritorial Torture Statute.)

Of course, the evolution of institutions – such as the international justice system – is always complex, and for every achievement, there are set-backs. But there is no doubt in my mind that if Taylor is convicted and sentenced for his crimes, entrepreneurs of violence, warlords and other small or big tyrants the world over will hear the message loud and clear: the culture of impunity is coming to an end.

No fire without smoke

From Nextbillion.net, a piece entitled “The Dark Side of Remittance Economies” asks:

In Development and Base of the Pyramid circles, we often discuss remittance economies and innovative ways to send remittances home; what we don’t always think or talk about is what forces people to leave their home countries in the first place and what they experience when they go abroad. In the case of Nepal, as I’ve written about before, migrant laborers most often
 travel to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, often having their passports taken away from them upon arrival and not getting paid for months at a time. So would systems that facilitate sending remittances home actually encourage and facilitate such an unjust ecosystem? 

First off, having your passport taken away and not getting paid for months at a time constitutes slavery (Article 1 of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery). Incredibly, slavery remains a major issue today, as more than 27 million peoplelive their every day in slavery or slavery-like conditions.” And while not all enslaved persons are migrant laborers (and of course, vice versa), it is true that many economic migrants end up in terrifying situations. As noted by the UN Special Rapporteur, “Some of the most traditional forms of slavery such as debt bondage [have] evolved and now manifests [themselves] in the plight of some migrant domestic workers.”

Remittances from migrant workers, however, are one of the most stable, largest sources of capital for many developing countries, more so than official development aid (ODA) or foreign investments. Moreover, remittances are actually more reliable and tend to be counter-cyclical. While remittances are going to decline this year, along with ODA and private investments, they will decline less. According to the Migration and Remittances Group at the World Bank, “despite the prospect of a sharper decline in remittance inflows than anticipated earlier, these flows will remain more resilient compared to many other types of resource flows such as private debt and equity flows and foreign direct investment, which are expected to decline or, in the case of portfolio flows, perhaps become negative in 2009 as foreign investors pull out of emerging markets.”

To be clear: the most sustainable form of capital flows to the developing world is not only in decline, but in its current form, relies – at least in part – on modern forms of slavery and forced labor. Indeed, for these flows to remain stable, millions of people have to endure harrowing trips across, and sometimes between, continents. There are more than a few stories about boat loads of migrants that capsize, end up shipwrecked, with their occupants arrested, and often deported

It’s an incredible shame that there aren’t better systems in place to promote a much healthier form of migrant labor – in Spain, for example, the government used to run a program to recruit foreign workers in Morocco and Latin American countries, based on the labor needs expressed by industry groups. These people were given temporary work authorizations and were subject to quite strict verifications – nonetheless, their conditions of employment were far, far better than what most can expect when immigrating on their own. 

Mustafa, 26, Somalia: « The travel took me one year through the desert and Five days of sea. The sea was unstable, twenty-five people where on the boat at the beginning, but only fifteen people arrived in Malta. » Février 2008. © Pierre Le Tulzo

New Wave

262 migrants from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived aboard a rickety fishing boat in Malta this morning. Media reports claim that the migrants attempted to “disperse and hide after landing in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, but were surrounded by police and soldiers”. Funny, because it doesn’t seem like anyone is dispersing and hiding – Watch the video here.

Most of these individuals will be repatriated, seeing as they come from countries which are not eligible for humanitarian status and cannot avail themselves of refugee or asylum seeking status.

Again… This shows the obvious need to reconsider how we handle population movements. People do not put themselves through such harrowing experiences without a good reason to do so. The answer isn’t an “open door” policy either – but an adequate policy mix, which combines elements of border protection and greater coordination with countries of origin with policies that promote the creation of opportunities in said countries.

Seems likely..

Intersecting tragedies

At last, an update on this blog. It’s not that I’m lazy, but I often feel like everything’s already been said and that I’m preaching to the choir. There are dozens of stories that inspire me to write, but I have a difficult finding something to say that I don’t find redundant. For instance, this story on “personal terrorism” (warming: photo not for the faint hearted)really shook me to the core when I first read it a few weeks back, and I have been pondering a post about it, but what can I say other than the fact that I find it deeply offensive, sad and backward… Sort of like this story about a 13 year old girl who was stoned to death because SHE was raped. I am – as we all are, at least those reading this blog – appalled that this sort of medieval, senseless and cruel violence against women still exists in this supposedly “modern” world. 

In any case, I have been watching all sorts of retrospectives and “year in review” programs on the various news channels on my parents’ cable (god bless satellite television), and when it’s all strung together, like a chain of very dark pearls, one really gets a sense of a flailing modern civilization. Sure, we’ve elected an amazing individual to the highest office in the land in the United States, but we have also witnessed a number of horrendous natural tragedies (the typhoon in Burma and the earthquakes in China claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each), ever continuing violence and hatred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Colombia… everywhere else…, a financial crisis of incomprehensible proportions (1000s of billions of dollars later, we will have fixed nothing), and, of course, we continue to witness the destruction of this planet. 
I was asked a few months ago to investigate the nexus of climate change, sustainable development and diplomacy – a broad topic, indeed. The focus, because of my background, was to be on “climate refugees”, which sounds like something from some sort of sci-fi movie, but is actually becoming a reality to contend with. Because of my new job and constant stress of running out of money for The Niapele Project, my mind has been consumed and I haven’t had a chance to delve into this topic. But watching one of those fascinating (yet frigthening) retrospectives on France 24 last night (France 24 is France’s response to CNN and BBC…. ), I saw a segment on the effects of climate change on a small group of islands called Carteret Islands.
This small group of islands, in my mind, symbolize the coming intersection of tragedies. We are used to thinking about climate change in a separate realm from man-made wars. Natural disasters have been, for some time, hermetically considered from the rest of the problems that affect humanity. I haven’t been able to find this again, but back in 2004, when the tsunami hit large swaths of Asia, and billions of dollars of aid poured in quasi instantly, a cartoon was published showing a couple African children in rags, watching a plane fly overhead with the words “Humanitarian Aid” written on it, and the following words appearing in a bubble above one of the kids: “Too bad we didn’t get hit”. We tend to separate suffering caused by other men and suffering caused by nature, as if the victims were true victims in one case, but not the other.
Anyway.
The people living in the Carteret Islands are among the world’s first “climate refugees“, and their home is slated to disappear in the oceans – forever – in the next 10 years or so (although predictions vary, clearly, like a lot of the other island states in the Pacific, the Carteret Islands’ fate is essentially sealed). Island nations have been among the first to call for concerted global action to deal with the issue of climate change – for them, it’s a matter of simple survival. Cynics might argue that these islands should not be inhabited in the first place, similarly to places like New Orleans or Holland or Venice. But the future of communities who live in these places has been compromised by humanity’s destructive behavior. 
Bangladesh – one of the world’s poorest and most populated countries – is also facing intractable challenges due to climate change.

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are already causing sea levels to rise here, and scientists say Bangladesh may lose up to 20 percent of its land by 2030 as a result of flooding. That Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries on the planet to climate change is a tragedy for its 150 million people, most of whom are destitute.”

It is a frigthening prospect – rising sea levels and disappearing homelands, leading to mass migrations. While we haven’t yet seen this happen on a massive scale, we are quick to dismiss the impact of environmental destruction and climate related causes of war and violence. In the Sudan, desertification is one of the underlying causes which pitted nomad cattle herders against sedentary agriproducers. As the world’s basic natural resources dwindle, and more and more previously habitable land is rendered unfit for human exploitation, we will undoubtedly witness some unprecendent population movements – how and where is hard to say, although clearly island nations, low lying coastal areas and landlocked deserted areas will be on the frontlines. 

I’m fascinated by this intersection of man made and natural tragedies, and curious to see how the world will respond. I’ve already mentioned ad nauseam how the international legal framework that governs the treatment of refugees and displaced people is outdated and unable to address modern challenges. Will the UNHCR blaze trails and design specific legal protections for communities and individuals displaced by environmental catastrophes? If so, when? Probably once it’s too late – it always takes a disaster of monumental proportions for the world to react (world war I was not enough for Europeans to stop killing each other – only at the end of world war II did we devise a system to prevent this from ever happening again [at least in our lifetimes]). 

For 2009, I wish that the leaders of our vulnerable little planet WAKE UP and realize that we are about to self-annihilate. It may even be too late – who knows, really – to reverse the effects of decades of selfish exploitation of the Earth. But the impending intersection of tragedies – the natural ones and the man-made ones – will surely be a wake up call, at some point down the line. 

To close of this post, and this year, I leave you with one of my favorite proverbs (sometimes attributed to ancient African wisdom, other times to Hindu philosophy, but nonetheless a deeply potent thought)

“We did not inherit this world from our forefathers – we are borrowing it from our grandchildren”

How to Make a Difference? First, Understand.

I am a firm believer that in order to be a truly effective advocate on any issue, it’s crucial to really understand the dynamics that you are contending with.

For The Niapele Project this means recognizing that we are in a constant state of learning – as we progress and deepen our involvement with the refugee community of West Africa, we are also attempting to truly understand what the issues are, at their core, so we can better serve the interests of the organizations we work with, and the children they serve.
We are continuously challenged in this extremely complex developing world environment – as a small NGO with limited resources, we try to position ourselves as open, flexible and willing to collaborate as knowledgeable partners.
In Liberia, we are beginning to collaborate with the UNHCR and the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (the government agency in charge of coordinating refugee issues) – in spite of our differences with these institutions in the past regarding the way in which Liberian refugees in Ghana were treated, we strongly believe that it will take the collaboration of all key stakeholders to create sustainable strategies for the effective integration of displaced people in Liberia.
(I only wish I was there myself…. sigh… maybe some time down the line!)
In any case, in order to bring deep expertise to the table, The Niapele Project has been working with some of the world’s best universities to develop our research capacity – we just released this study produced by Masters candidates at Sciences Po (my alma mater in Paris), which provides a critical overview of policy options for protracted refugee situations, and we are currently working with the Yale Law School on another study which will outline the international and national legal framework with regards to returning refugee rights in Liberia.
We are really looking forward to 2009 – in spite of the arduous fundraising road ahead, I am full of confidence that The Niapele Project will continue to have a positive impact in the lives of vulnerable refugee children.