THE LANDMARK conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor on war crimes and crimes against humanity has been welcomed by human rights groups as providing justice for victims.
Taylor was yesterday convicted by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone of several charges including rape, murder, sexual slavery, and the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers. The court found him guilty of aiding and abetting the Sierra Leonean rebel group the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in carrying atrocities during the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone.
He is the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after the Second World War.
Thousands of people who had gathered at special viewing sites in Sierra Leone to watch yesterday’s verdict live applauded when the conviction was read by the presiding judge.
Human Rights Watch senior international justice counsel Elise Keppler said the conviction “sends a message to those in power that they can be held accountable for grave crimes”.
“Powerful leaders like Charles Taylor have for too long lived comfortably above the law,” she added. “This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims of Taylor’s brutal crimes, and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.”
Child Soldiers International, which campaigns against the use of children as soldiers, said the court had reached a “critical milestone” in establishing the criminal responsibility of a former head of state.
“Today’s verdict is yet another step towards ending impunity for those that recruit and use child soldiers,” the organisation’s director Richard Clarke said in a statement. ”This judgment establishes that providing arms and supporting armed groups that recruit and sue children in hostilities is a criminal offence.”
The group also said that pressure is mounting for the arrest of others involved in the recruitment and use of child soldiers, such as Joseph Kony or Bosco Ntaganda.
The director of Amnesty International Sierra Leone Brima Abdulai Sheriff said that the Taylor verdict carries the message “no matter who you are or what position you hold, you will be brought to justice for crimes”.
“While today’s conviction brings some measure of justice to the people of Sierra Leone, Taylor and the others sentenced by the Special Court are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
“Thousands of persons suspected of criminal responsibility for unlawful killings, rape and sexual violence, mutilations and the use of children in Sierra Leone’s armed conflict have never been investigated, much less prosecuted.”
As the special court was limited to activities in Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch has called on the Liberian government to initiate proceedings over war crimes perpetrated there during the conflict.
Amnesty has also called for wider reparations for the victims of the violence.
Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International Ireland said that reparations are “essential to achieve justice for the victims and assisting them to rebuild their lives”.
“Sadly, only a limited number of Sierra Leone’s thousands of victims have received reparations, despite the Lomé Peace Accord and the clear recommendations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission”.
Sierra Leone’s National Commission for Social Action has a programme for providing reparations to the victims of the conflict, though child soldiers are excluded from the scheme as ‘former combatants’.
UNICEF says that around 14,000 children who were used as human shields, sex slaves and mine labourers in the war were released after the conflict, of which around half were reunited with their families.
The organisation says that some of the children were given assistance to reintegrate which included receiving plastic surgery to help remove branding and scarring they were subjected to by their captors.