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Charles Taylor’s Conviction ‘Pushes International Law Further’ for Related Cases

April 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor's guilty verdict Thursday was the first time an international court has convicted a head of state since the Nuremberg trials. Jeffrey Brown and Eric Stover of the University of California, Berkeley discuss the conviction and the potential legal implications for other cases.
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JEFFREY BROWN: For more, we turn to Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley. He has participated in several criminal investigations of international leaders.

So, Eric Stover, how significant is this conviction and why?

ERIC STOVER, Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley: Oh, it’s very significant. It’s historical for several reasons.

First, as you pointed out earlier in the tape, this is the first conviction since Nuremberg just after World War II of a former chief of state who is held culpable for crimes against humanity.

Second — and I think this is really most important — as the 11-year war ended in 2002 in Sierra Leone and the fog of war lifted, people came to realize that the person behind the mass terror and destruction that took place in the country was Charles Taylor.

So they’re seeing a measure of justice, as the prosecutor said. Thirdly, it’s important to look at the — what he was convicted of. Charles Taylor wasn’t at the helm ordering these crimes, but he was behind the scenes planning and aiding and abetting, and making an incredible amount of money, millions of dollars for his government’s coffers and his personal coffers.

This has sent a message that those who will profit from arms trading, those who will profit from the suffering of others can be held accountable in international court.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eric, I was wondering — I want to stop you there, because I was wondering about that, because. . .

ERIC STOVER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re suggesting that the fact that they found him guilty of aiding and abetting, as opposed to actually controlling the militias or commanding the militias, might have a wider implication for other cases out there?

ERIC STOVER: Absolutely.

Look, in the trial of the Srebrenica massacre, Gen. Krstic was actually convicted of aiding and abetting. Yet he was there at the crime. Aiding and abetting has been present in our trials ever since 1994 in these courts. So aiding and abetting means that that individual is being held responsible for the behind-the-scenes operations and the fact that he gained money from this and that he knowingly, he was fully aware of the crimes that were being committed.

So this pushes international law further out and can grab more of those who are responsible for these crimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the process? As you look more broadly at these cases of international justice, there’s been criticisms of the length of time, of the money involved. This case took five years, lots of money.

There’s been some criticism that these efforts can lead to a kind of circling of the wagons. It makes leaders less willing to leave voluntarily, go into exile to other countries. Where are we now when you look at the broader situation?

ERIC STOVER: Well, listen, justice is the thing that’s always about to happen.

It is tough. It’s going to take time. But if you ask the question how much destruction was brought about by that 11-year war compared to the cost of a five-year trial, and the fact that — that sending out a signal to those that leaders can be brought to justice is extremely important.

You know, it was said just after the Dayton Accords in 2005 that by bringing the war criminals to justice in Bosnia, the war would break out again. Well, look what happened. Here we are with 161 indictees at the Yugoslavia court, all of them brought in, and there’s still peace in Bosnia.

So, yes, it’s difficult. It takes tremendous commitment on the part of government. It’s not easy. But it is a first step towards assuring peace in the long run.

JEFFREY BROWN: And briefly, of course, in the case of Charles Taylor, there’s still sentencing to come. There may be an appeal, I guess, right?

ERIC STOVER: Well, there — he has an appeal. And the stiffest sentence that’s been handed down for the six others who have been convicted by the court is 52 years. So it could be anywhere in that range up to life imprisonment.

The important thing is the message that it’s sending to the Sierra Leone people and to those potential perpetrators in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this, of course, was a special court set up for Sierra Leone. This disbands, I gather, after this case. But you’re saying the quest, these other kinds of courts, the ICC in particular, those go on.

ERIC STOVER: That’s right.

The International Criminal Court — take, for instance, the case of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. He has been indicted for crimes against humanity. In 2011, he traveled to Kenya, and yet the Kenyans had signed on to the Rome Statute of court, and they didn’t arrest him.

He left, but now the Ministry of Justice in Kenya has an arrest warrant out for him. So, if he comes back — so, the importance is that governments stand up and support these courts. And for the International Criminal Court to really be effective, we need to get the United States on board.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Eric Stover, thanks so much.