In May of 1997, in the middle of the Liberian Civil War, I led a mission to Liberia on behalf of Amnesty International (AI). Elections were going on at the same time in that damaged country and Charles Taylor, among others, was running for president. It was said that his campaign slogan was "Vote for me or I'll kill you!"
At the opening press conference that the AI mission held in Monrovia, one of the reporters from a newspaper that opposed Taylor asked me whether Amnesty believed that war criminals should be allowed to run for president, implying, obviously, that Taylor fell into that category. I replied that Amnesty took no position on who should be allowed to run for president but we naturally believed that all war criminals should be brought to justice. The next day that newspaper carried a banner headline, "War Criminals May Not Run for President," and attributed the statement to me.
That afternoon I went into the office of the editor and explained my position again, asking for a correction. "Oh, no problem," the editor assured me. The next day's headline was even larger: "YOU WILL BE BOOKED!" It quoted me as making that declaration.
That afternoon two of my Amnesty colleagues had an appointment to meet with Millie Buchanan, one of Taylor's "aides." "My Taylor has a message for Dr. Schulz," she said. "Mr. Taylor is very concerned about Dr. Schulz's health. He says that Dr. Schulz will be booked with a bullet if he ever returns to Liberia and he should keep an eye out for his back in New York."
Needless to say, I took more than a passing interest, then, in the recent news that Charles Taylor had been convicted on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, meeting in The Hague. On trial since 2006 and on the witness stand for seven months, Taylor was found guilty of supporting and guiding the notorious rebel movement in Sierra Leone that hacked off limbs and heads with wild abandon. He was paid for his troubles in so-called blood diamonds.
Though Taylor still retains support in Liberia, that country is a far different place today than in 1997, having held two elections generally recognized as legitimate and headed as it is by Africa's first female president, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson. The importance of this verdict goes far beyond either Liberia or Sierra Leone, however.
Victims of human rights crimes sometimes lament the international community's ragged attempts to establish a regimen of international accountability. I was in Cambodia a few weeks ago and heard repeatedly that the trials of the aged Khmer Rouge leaders now going on there were failing to address the "real" perpetrators of atrocities and would never bring back loved ones, in any case.
But the point of these trials is not just to bring justice to crimes past; it is to persuade would-be future perpetrators to think twice before they act. That message is circulating slowly and haltingly simply because international legal mechanisms are slow and halting. But as the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since Nuremburg, Taylor has become a powerful symbol of the fact that sovereign immunity is a concept that is starting to tatter.
The 1999 decision of the British Law Lords that Augusto Pinochet could be extradited to Spain to stand trial for his crimes as President of Chile started it all. Since then Slobodan Milosovic was extradited to The Hague and escaped his fate only by dying in 2006 before the trial ended. Former Cote d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo has been transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the sitting President of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir has been indicted by the ICC though he is not yet in custody.
What a wonderful world we would live in if everyone who committed a crime was arrested, promptly given a fair trial, and, if justifiably convicted, received an appropriate sentence. But no justice system is perfect, particularly one as complex as an international system which lacks even so much as an enforcement arm to take those accused of crimes into custody.
Perfect or not, however, the image of Charles Taylor -- warlord, embezzler and escapee from a Massachusetts prison, by the way -- booked, tried and convicted by judges from Ireland, Samoa and Uganda cannot help but be a satisfying one for many people. Monrovia is looking better and better for my next vacation!
William F. Schulz, President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), served as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA from 1994-2006.