05/31/2012 10:55 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Message of Accountability for Murderous Leaders?

So it's possible. This week's news tells the world that a criminal head of state can be made -- eventually -- to pay for his crimes.

It inescapably felt historic to take in the live feed from The Hague as Presiding Judge Richard Lussick read in his matter-of-fact Australasian tones (he's from Samoa) the sentence on Liberia's ex-President Charles Taylor -- 50 years' imprisonment. Lussick spelled out that it was for -- still no vocal inflections from the judge -- "some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history."

I don't suppose Taylor's imprisonment -- to be in Britain -- can go very far to alleviate the suffering of the countless Sierra Leonean citizens who mourn the deaths of their loved ones, or who were traumatized in the maelstrom of violence orchestrated by this vicious "leader" from their neighboring country.

As well as the thousands of rape survivors, Sierra Leone's lasting emblematic image is of a population unbearably marked by thousands of limb-stumps, chopped off by Taylor's frontline hatchet-men. The lexicon of horror gained a revolting new slang from these thugs, with "long-sleeve" meaning a hand hacked off at the wrist, or "short-sleeve" -- an arm severed at the elbow or above.

But for the world at large the Special Court for Sierra Leone's decision should mean vicious despots around the world will sense that their apparent impunity is now threatened by a world which can and will monitor crimes they commit and call them to account. The emphasis there is on "should."

That certainly was the vision that fueled the uphill struggle at the United Nations in the 1990s, when I worked there, to create a "World Court" as proponents of human rights wanted -- now officially named, since it's been working (also in the Hague), the International Criminal Court.

The application of such internationalist ideals to Taylor's atrocities in West Africa, through the stand-alone mechanism of the Sierra Leone Special Court, took almost an entire decade from his ejection from office in 2003 before resulting in his conviction last month and his sentencing this week. It owes much to ordinary citizens' own brave actions, notably unstoppable Sierra Leonean women -- and added to them there has been the determined work of journalists, international agency workers, lawyers and forensic scientists.

Prosecutors could trace the course of Taylor's instructions and payments to his favored faction (RUF, or the Revolutionary United Front) in the 1991-2002 civil war only because assiduous fact-finding and analysis was contributed by these untold ranks of dedicated truth-seekers.

Some powerful journalism was devoted to exposing the role of "blood diamonds" in particular, and it proved especially important -- for they constituted the conflict's booty and the main currency of Taylor's corruption.

But of course the question, and much uncertainty, remains... about the value of such a legal process, elongated as almost any legal process must be.

Our thoughts must turn -- more pointedly than anywhere else, I imagine -- to four thousand miles away in Syria, and its murderous despot Bashar al-Assad.

Eleven countries expel Assad's diplomats from their capitals -- in what's apparently the fiercest international sanction they can muster -- after the savage killing of over a hundred citizens in Houla.

And that's it?

Are those Syrian parents portrayed in the media's searing imagery -- mourning their children's small, shrouded bodies -- going to have to wait a decade for any justice... if indeed there's ever any to be had, from any source?

No remedy is at hand from the United Nations as a political supra-national body, after all, and it's impossible to see any way at all that its new legal instruments can help in the here and now.

Kofi Annan, who was commissioned jointly by the UN and the Arab League to devise and push through a Syria peace plan, himself spent much of the '90s, we'll remember, as the UN's top man.

This now-forlorn figure, with his plan in bloodied tatters around him, was once crucial to creating those Hague-based, global legal instruments that we've seen in action this week.

We can perhaps after Taylor's sentencing applaud the Hague-style processes -- but only in a limited, one-off kind of a way... as we look warily around the rest of the globe, to where much speedier action is needed than any court of law can provide.

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.