Banks, Crane, Klein Call For War Crimes Tribunal In Liberia

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 10, 2006


Photo by Musue Haddad
David Crane
“This is a great day for international justice,” said David Crane, the former prosecutor of the United Nations Special Tribunal to Sierra Leone in his opening remarks at the United States Institute Peace panel discussion on the aftermaths of the transfer of Charles Taylor to face the Court in Freetown. Understandably, it was a historic moment for Mr. Crane, who, many years ago, promised that he would not rest until Mr. Taylor was made to answer for his crimes in a court of law. He got his wishes, two weeks ago, when the former president was arrested in the most dramatic way in Nigeria and flown to Freetown after a brief stop over in Liberia.

Photo by Musue Haddad
Phillip Banks (l), Jacques Klein (R)
Mr. Crane was among four panelists that included Philip A. Z. Banks, former Minister of Justice in the Interim Government of Liberia (1990 –1994), Jacques Klein, former representative of the UN Secretary General to Liberia (2003-2005) and Ismail Rashid, a Sierra Leone native and professor at Vassar College. The discussion was held under the theme “Charles Taylor On Trial.” It was just four years ago, that at the same venue, Dr. Amos Sawyer and Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf held a similar discussion and concluded that Liberia under Taylor was the “Eye of the Hurricane.”

Mr. Rashid said that he hoped that Taylor would be tried in Sierra Leone. “We want Charles Taylor to face his victims, we want our people to see his face when he is answering questions about the crimes he committed against them.” Rashid added that while crimes against humanity committed by Taylor are brought into the foreground, the two decades of destruction, economic retardation he caused in the region would take generations to be corrected.

Echoing recent calls by many Liberians and human rights organizations, Cllr. Banks said that crimes committed by Taylor and his followers in Liberia are even greater than those for which he was being put on trial in Sierra Leone and called for the setting-up of a similar hybrid court in Liberia.

According to Cllr. Banks, there were others in the sub region and elsewhere that, not only collaborated with Taylor in his destructive schemes, but also benefited from his lootings and who should account for their actions. Among others, he cited President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso who provided training, troops and other logistic support to Taylor, Colonel Moammar Kaddafi of Libya who provided the initial training for both Taylor’s NPFL and Foday Sankoh’s RUF and the government of Cote d’Ivoire under Houphouet Boigny who allowed the NPFL operate openly from its territory and attack Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Mr. Crane underlined the fact that the destabilization of West Africa was part of a grand political strategy of Moammar Kaddafi to control the entire region through surrogate regimes. Crane said that the Libyan leader has not abandoned his plans, although he might have adopted a new strategy. The former prosecutor regretted that statutes of the tribunal in Sierra Leone were very circumspect and did not allow them to go after other actors, “but” he added, “This was necessary to maintain our focus. This was a new undertaking for all of us and we needed to be careful as not to bite too much.”

In the past few weeks, many Liberian organizations called for a war crimes tribunal to take a look at the grave attacks on the people of Liberia by warlords over the years. Mr. Klein said that United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has collected lot of forensic data and evidence that could serve as a starting point.

Several persons in the audience at USIP called for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal in Liberia. Others expressed fears that security may not be adequate to contain Taylor. Speaking at the Third King Sao Bosso Lecture in Philadelphia over the weekend, Liberian political analyst and writer, Mr. Bai Gbala who served in various governments in Liberia from 1980 before being incarcerated by President Taylor for treason in 1998, said that those who committed abuses in Liberia should also face a court of law.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Leone parliament passed a resolution calling for the trial to be held in Sierra Leone. Whatever happens now and in the near future, another chapter of the Taylor saga is just opening.

After spending her first months in office dealing with calls to ask for the surrender of Taylor to the tribunal, Mrs. Sirleaf may now face in the near future daily demands for her to seek the establishment of a war crimes tribunal in Liberia. During her campaign, and just before the second round, candidate Sirleaf said that she would not prioritize the setting up of such a tribunal and that she was giving preference to the TRC. The sight of Charles Taylor in handcuffs and his subsequent trial could embolden Liberians to seek justice against the warlords who subjugated them to 14 years of war, rape, destruction and looting. Every day that Taylor spends in jail, his influence wanes. And as victims recover from the trauma of the brutality of the civil war, they will start thinking about justice.

Said Cllr. Banks, “I have difficulty to accept the fact that people who committed atrocities and plundered our resources are allowed to go free.”

Setting up a war crimes tribunal in Liberia, even if limited in scope, the panel seems to agree, would allow the understanding of the entire history of the conflict, lead to capacity building in the judiciary for the region and prevent the recurrence such destructive wars.

Mr. Klein said that the crimes committed in Liberia and Sierra Leone “challenge our very sense of humanity,” adding that the greatest achievement of a trial of this magnitude is that “it demystifies Taylor and those like him. It cuts them to size.” This may be the most valid reason for the trial to be held in Sierra Leone: people in the sub-region need to witness the “cutting down to size” of a man who had outgrown poster boards. Transferring the trial to The Hague could reinforce the notion that Taylor is too big a man to be tried in Africa. His arrest was meant to prove just the opposite. His landing in jail in Sierra Leone meant that he was a man, a cruel and corrupt human being but still a man, who cannot be too big for justice in Africa. Sierra Leoneans and other Africans need see on a daily basis his trial in full, not through sound bites or short paragraphs in the international media. In the end, the mystic would have disappeared and Taylor would have become just what he is, a man who committed crimes against humanity.

During the discussion, Crane asked if “the justice we want to provide for Africans is the justice they want.” The response is unequivocally “yes.” When someone chops off the arms and legs of children using other drugged children, it makes no difference where that person comes from and what color the skin.

The drawback from this publicity could be that the real issues facing Liberia would be neglected, or in the end, again, be tied to the setting up of a war crimes tribunal. This may be why Jacques Klein said, before he exited the panel that “the Taylor issue could divert attention from the real problems in Liberia that President Sirleaf has to find a solution to and which include education, health, and normal basic social services that most of the world take for granted.”

Rather than set up a new tribunal in Liberia, an easier solution could be to extend the mandate, both in time and scope of the Sierra Leone War Crimes tribunal to include Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, turning it into a regional Court. The same people were behind all three wars and would have to answer the same questions. When the Liberian conflict extended to Sierra Leone, ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping troops were moved across the border and later, many of the same troops were sent to Liberia and later to Cote d’Ivoire. This could serve as the beginning of a new type of cooperation and regional integration.

Rashid said that the best way to avoid recurrences of these wars is to sustain the budging democratic process in the sub region. It can be added that international justice must also include fairness among nations so that some countries are not so crippled by debts and poverty that any fast talking hoodlums could arm children and turn them into killing machine, because they see no future.

The trial of Charles Taylor, in a way, is a critical review of the past uneven and paternalistic relationships between the US and Liberia. It was the failure of the US Cold War policies in Liberia that gave rise to Samuel Doe and subsequently, Charles Taylor and all the mini warlords that came along. To paraphrase Klein, the US must adopt a consistent policy towards Liberia, one of its most reliable allies of all times. If the trial of Taylor has to have any lasting effect, it must be that the conditions that brought him into existence – mass poverty, corruption, state brutality, lack of justice and accountability, impunity, etc -are removed once for all. Presidents George W. Bush and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have promised to work together to launch a new relationship between their two countries based on partnership. That could be a start, if it ever materializes.

Also See: “After Charles Taylor, Get Moammar Kaddafi …and Blaise Compaore”, March 19, 2004 by Abdoulaye W. Dukulé