The recent verdict and sentencing in the long-running trial for war crimes of former president and notorious warlord Charles Taylor by the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone has sparked a flurry of news reports, comment and internet chatter, but rather less informed analysis. This article aims to assess the verdict and offer a measured appraisal of the issues of concern in an attempt to balance the overly emotional opinions on offer from both Taylor's supporters and detractors.
My own considered view as a longtime observer of the country and student of its history is that notwithstanding the many serious flaws of the process by which Taylor has been judged, the verdict delivered by the court is the right one, reflecting the true extent of his role in the conflict in Sierra Leone and of his relationship with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).
As the judges found, Taylor did aid and abet these two groups in their efforts to gain and retain power and associated commission of atrocities against the civilian populations, providing 'sustained and significant' support by supplying them with arms and ammunition in exchange for diamonds and helping to plan specific attacks including the horrific assault on Freetown in January 1999. He also served as a mentor figure to their leaders, particularly Sam Bokarie aka Mosquito, with whom he maintained close radio contact and hosted in Monrovia.
However, and crucially, the judges also concluded that while Taylor's support was important to the rebel forces, it was not ultimately an instrumental factor in the conflict, as Taylor did not command or direct its course, nor was he involved in the initial conceptualizing of the incursion in Libya in the late 1980s. As pointed out by commentators on the Sierra Leone conflict as well as by Taylor's defense barrister Courtenay Griffiths, the excessive focus on Taylor's role has helped to obscure analysis of the internal historical dynamics which have of course been the major determining factors shaping the country's conflict, a process that is captured effectively by the local expression 'moving the body next door and hoping not to smell it'. It is important to restore these internal factors to their rightful central place in understanding the Sierra Leone conflict, including in particular the political economy of diamond extraction as well as the legacy of the country's colonial and post-colonial history.
The sentence Taylor received from the court of 50 years may be seen as somewhat excessive in relation to this more limited judgment of his culpability as compared to the allegations of the prosecution of a joint criminal enterprise with the RUF, and it may end up being reduced on appeal.
Misleading and unhelpful reporting
But while the ruling that Taylor did aid and abet but not command and control the neighboring rebel groups does appear to reflect fairly well the fundamental realities of the conflict, much of the nuance of the judges' findings has been lost in the hyperbole and half-truths that have dominated international reporting and commentary on the case, and which have served to hinder rather than enlighten understanding. The prosecutor herself has contributed to the confusion through her continued references to Taylor's 'proxy' forces, a clearly untenable description given the court's conclusion and one which does nothing to facilitate better understanding of the internal dynamics of the Sierra Leone conflict.
Such inaccuracies are compounded by the incendiary language of many media reports, with the portrayal of Taylor as a 'caged cannibal' who presided over drug-crazed, wig-wearing child soldiers strangely at odds with the lucid and smart character who made his own case so eloquently in court.