May 31, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, discusses the international war crimes trial of former Liberian leader Charles Ghankay Taylor, which is set to open next Monday, June 4, at The Hague, describing it as “an event whose significance for Africa and the world transcends not only the rather pathetic character who will be slumped in the box reserved for the accused, but also the deadly chain of events which he unleashed.”

Dr. Pham notes that the legal proceedings against Taylor have their limitations, including the fact that the carefully circumscribed jurisdiction of the Special Court for Sierra Leone will mean that Taylor “is being held accountable for what he did to the people of neighboring Sierra Leone during a certain period” but not what he did to his fellow Liberians and that while “Taylor bears considerable responsibility for the atrocities committed in the Liberian civil war, he is not the only one” who needs to brought to justice. However, he argues, these minor shortcomings notwithstanding, the Taylor trial still represents a significant watershed:

Up to 1990, with the exception of the state presidents of the apartheid regime in South Africa, no African leader had ever left office through electoral defeat and only three had retired voluntarily…By decade’s end, virtually all sub-Saharan African states had at least tentatively opened their political systems to some form of competition…However, what remained virtually unchanged was the clubby notion of impunity which united the continent’s “big men.”

 Now an African leader not only stands trial, but his claims to immunity have been explicitly repudiated. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that security will be achieved across the continent to the extent that impunity is vanquished. The man who perhaps done more than anyone to bring about Monday’s trial opening, David Crane, is certainly right on target when he commented last week to a reporter about the larger implications of the trial: “ No one is above the law. The law is fair and…the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun. This will certainly send a signal and has already sent a signal to the people of Africa that their lives matter. And that no leader, regardless of who he is, has the right to take the lives of his own citizens.”

 To read the full text of Dr. Pham’s article, “Building Security by Ending Impunity: The Trial of Charles Taylor,” click here.