Fiji's illegal ruler has tried to reinvent himself as a legitimate leader but no makeover can change the fact Frank Bainimarama is an unelected leader ... an unprincipled military commander who used the army to take control of the country and who has kept citizens under this thumb for the past five years via the rule of the gun and illegal decrees. The fate of the Liberian despot, Charles Taylor, is a message to unsanctioned leaders like Bainimarama.
|The face of a fallen despot. Below: Dictator on the loose thanks to the support of army.|
Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, has been found to have "aided and abetted" war crimes by a United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague.
After four years of hearings at the special court for Sierra Leone, the disgraced one-time guerrilla leader was found to have provided sustained support for rebels during their reign of terror in the neighbouring west African state.
He was also said to have participated in the planning of certain attacks, including the assault on Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
The judge said Taylor would be sentenced on 30 May after a hearing on 16 May.
Taylor, 64, the first African head of state to be brought before an international tribunal, had pleaded not guilty to all 11 charges.
He stood at the back of the court while the judge formally found him "criminally responsible" of aiding and abetting in the commission of 11 crimes.
Hands clasped in front of him, Taylor blinked as the long list of his criminal responsibility was read out. His eyes shifted not knowing where to focus.
Between 1996 and 2002, the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which Taylor supported, was found by the court to have committed crimes involving terrorising civilian populations, murder, rape, sexual slavery and enforced amputations in Sierra Leone.
Judge Richard Lussick of Samoa said more than 1,000 children had the letters "RUF" carved into their backs to prevent them escaping. Children were used to amputate limbs, guard diamond mines and hunt for food. Some were involved in fighting.
The judge said Taylor told RUF commanders to seize and hold the diamond-producing areas of Sierra Leone so that he could continue trading gems for arms and ammunition. One diamond was said to have weighed as much as 36 carats.
The court found that despite Taylor's denials, he knew from August 1997 about the campaign of terror being waged against the civilian population in Sierra Leone, including murder, rape and amputations.
Taylor continued privately fuelling the conflict by providing arms and ammunition to the RUF in Sierra Leone, the judge said. His clandestine dealing helped undermine the peace process even when there was a regional arms embargo in force.
Taylor's conviction will be widely welcomed in Sierra Leone but the response in Liberia, where he was once seen as a freedom fighter and retains support, may be more critical.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that he was the first former head of state to face judgment in an international court on war crimes charges since judges in Nuremberg convicted Karl Dönitz, an admiral who led Nazi Germany for a brief period following Adolf Hitler's suicide.
Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, faced trial by an international criminal tribunal, but he died before a judgment was issued. Another head of state, the one-time president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, is also detained in The Hague. He will appear at the international criminal court on charges of crimes against humanity.
Human Rights Watch said the trial of Taylor signalled an end to an era of impunity. "Taylor's trial has immense significance for people in the west African sub-region who suffered as a consequence of the violence and instability he allegedly fomented in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire," the organisation said.
"For decades, so-called "big men – people who either led armed groups or wielded significant political power – have been allowed to carry out abuses, seemingly with no fear of being investigated or held accountable by a credible judicial body.
"In this trial, for the first time, such a 'big man' was taken into custody and forced to answer for his alleged crimes."
The judges also had to consider how the 11 charges against Taylor fitted into three legal levels of proof: whether he aided or abetted in the execution of the crimes; whether he was involved in the offences as a joint enterprise with paramilitary groups in Sierra Leone or, most damningly, whether he exercised control and command over the other rebel groups that perpetrated atrocities. In the end they decided his role amounted to the lesser of the three categories.
Taylor has 14 days from the receipt of the full judgment to file a written notice of appeal with the registrar against his convictions.
Despite previous suggestions that he would not be able to attend, his lead counsel, Courtenay Griffiths QC, was in court to hear the final verdict.
Despots have nowhere to hide
As Kofi Annan’s number two at the UN, I recall a long few days painstakingly monitoring with lawyers the procedures for the handover of the exiled Charles Taylor by his Nigerian hosts-turned-captors to the Liberian authorities and thence in mid-air to the UN and so to the Hague and his trial. Everything had to be done by the book to avoid later appeal but we were writing the book as we went along. This had hardly been done before. Until then international justice when it came to leaders who had run amok had been with the exception of Nuremberg more mouse than lion when it came to action. Indeed when Mr Taylor went to Nigeria he thought he had a deal ensuring him lifelong sanctuary.
Now the outcome of this special court, the verdicts of the International Criminal Court and the Balkan trials of Slobodan Milošević and fellow military and political leaders, Cambodia’s internationally supported prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders and others tell a very different story of gathering international judicial activism. Leaders usually cannot get away with mass crimes against citizens anymore. Even if their own judicial and institutional systems are too weak to hold them to account, there is now a higher international authority that will.
This can, as it has in Sierra Leone and Liberia, offer a redemptive healing for traumatised societies where child soldiers incited by Mr Taylor had murdered and mutilated on a massive scale as he sought to control neighbouring Sierra Leone’s diamonds. But it’s more powerful use still is as a deterrent to other murderous leaders, such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who are still used to getting away with it. Here the impact is more mixed.
These two leaders are probably more determined to hang on because of the risk of international trial if they step down. Whenever I was involved in discussions of what it might take to persuade Mr Mugabe to go there was often talk of allowing him perhaps to end his days in Zimbabwe itself where there might be some protection against an international arrest warrant. For Mr Assad there seems little prospect of a secure retirement with his in-laws in west London. The warrants would fly thick and fast given his vicious actions over the last year. The negotiations over Darfur were complicated by the ICC charges against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan despite a provision in that court’s charter which would allow the UN Security Council to delay a trial if that would help the diplomacy forward.
So the threat of justice may make old leaders hang on. Where its deterrent value is much higher is with new leaders who as they embark on governing their countries recognise a new accountability. If they fall outside the pale and commit major atrocities they will be judged and there are political deals to ease their departure can no longer trump this. President Obasanjo of Nigeria gave Mr Taylor an offer of safe exile to stop the fighting. But when the wheels of international justice turned he very properly had to renege on his word.
The message is that there is nowhere left for murderous despots to hide. That is an extraordinary step forward in global accountability and responsibility and far outweighs the difficulties of temporarily making it harder to prise a long time offender from office. We should celebrate today’s verdict by copying President Truman’s old White House office desk sign, “The Buck Stops Here” and sending it to all world leaders starting with A for Assad and completing with Z for Zimbabwe.
Hague finds Charles Taylor guilty
The Charles Taylor verdict shows that future despots have nowhere left to hide