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The Charles Taylor Trial

Commentary, 17 July 2009
Law and Ethics, Africa
The trial of Charles Taylor is a milestone for justice in Africa; but it also has a global significance. Beyond the penny dreadful, stereotypical media headlines of dictators running for cover, this trial could also have a serious impact on domestic politics and foreign policy in London and Washington.

The trial of Charles Taylor is a milestone for justice in Africa; but it also has a global significance. Beyond the penny dreadful, stereotypical media headlines of dictators running for cover, this trial could also have a serious impact on domestic politics and foreign policy in London and Washington.

Charles Taylor

By Dr Knox Chitiyo, Head of Africa Programme, RUSI


The trial of former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, for war crimes allegedly committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war of 1991 to 2004, is a transformative moment for Africa. It is the first time that an African former head of state is in the dock. The proceedings also have wider significance; in a year when the Taylor trial overlaps with the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of President Omar al Bashir of Sudan, and the forthcoming trial of former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, this may be an historic moment for African and global justice.


This case, which is being conducted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), has enormous symbolism. This is the first time that an African leader has had to face a public trial on charges of promoting violence. Dozens of prosecution witnesses have given their public testimony against Taylor since 2007. Victims of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forces in Sierra Leone, which Taylor is accused of having sponsored, have testified that RUF soldiers and Taylor’s own National Patriotic Front forces, were acting under his orders. Some of Taylor’s chief aides, including former Liberian Vice President Moses Blah, have testified against their former boss, stating that he sanctioned and encouraged the horrific crimes. This trial has a deep cultural significance. In Africa, as elsewhere in the world, it is a cultural taboo for current or former heads of state to be indicted for war crimes. It is almost unheard of for citizenry to give evidence, or press charges against a leader. It is thus ground breaking that witnesses are directly presenting evidence against Taylor. They are not just implying that Taylor knew what was happening, or that he was indirectly responsible for their torment. They are stating that Taylor knew exactly what was happening, and that he encouraged the brutalities. As a commander, Taylor was revered by his soldiers, and feared as a leader with magic powers. A public trial in which he is forced to confront his accusers thus helps to break the cycle of fear which held Liberia and Sierra Leone in thrall.

A Fair Trial

Initially, Taylor’s key defence was that he would not receive a fair trial. However the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) has made great efforts to ensure that Taylor receives a fair hearing. The former president has assembled his own legal team, and insists that he brokered peace not war, in Sierra Leone. Taylor also claims that he is a victim of a western conspiracy. There is no guarantee that the SCSL Tribunal in the Hague will find Taylor guilty; his culpability has to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Contrary to public perception, the onus is on the prosecution, not the defence. Taylor will claim, in essence, that the prosecution witnesses are relaying accounts based on ‘false memory’ and are motivated by personal vendettas against him. Proving a direct, causal connection between Taylor and the violence will not be easy, and Taylor has shown that he has a flair for legal process. The trial process - in which both sides of the story are heard - is as important as the outcome.

Significance for Africa

This trial has consequences for the region and the continent. In Sierra Leone itself, the trial has proved to be socially divisive, but not catastrophically so; there has been a relatively muted response from the citizenry. There are three main reasons for this; first, Taylor’s trial is being held abroad, unlike the recently concluded SLSC trials of former RUF leaders Issa Sesay, Morris Kalla and Augustine Gbao. For some, Taylor’s trial is a ‘foreign’ event, a ‘show’ trial. Second, the trial discusses decade–old events. Critics thus see it as little more than an irrelevant historical artifact. Third, some Sierra Leoneans see the trial as promoting a stereotypical, destructivist image of Sierra Leone and Africa, at a time when the country has moved on from conflict. Amidst all the furore, it is easy to miss the real significance of the trial; namely that it highlights Sierra Leone’s remarkable journey from minimal rule of law, to a world class justice system.

In Liberia, the trial has had a greater impact. This is partly because Taylor is Liberian, and also because of the trial’s overlap with a recently report by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC]. The TRC report, which is based on interviews with victims and perpetrators in Liberia’s civil war, has recommended that Liberia’s former warlords, many of whom are now members of the political establishment, should be tried for war crimes. Controversially, the report also alleges that current President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson contributed funds to Taylor. Many of those named in the Report, and Taylor’s supporters, have condemned it and insisted that not only will they never face trial, but also that they will not allow Liberia its version of the SCSL. However, Liberia’s civil society maintains that Taylor’s trial and the TRC report necessitate a Liberian special court to try the perpetrators.


The SLSC has shown that it can provide an African [or hybrid African – international ] justice mechanism which meets global standards. The challenge, therefore, is for African states to strengthen the continent’s justice and governance delivery systems, which include parliaments, the courts and police forces. In addition, the trial also demonstrates that post conflict security in Africa is not always a stark choice between peace and justice. Fears that the Taylor trial and the Liberian TRC would reignite conflict, have proved to be groundless. Admittedly, Liberia and Sierra Leone are different from the Great Lakes region or Zimbabwe, but the basic principle – that permanent impunity is unacceptable – is vital.

The trial marks a subtle but important shift in peace- building orthodoxy; normally, justice is absent in the trajectory of peace-building (negotiations; ceasefire; transitional government; aid; elections). That trajectory remains, but the trial shows that justice delayed is supplanting the tradition of justice denied. Furthermore, the success of the SCSL suggests that hybridity (combining local capacity with pragmatic international assistance) is a more productive route than following the shrilly competitive dogmas of ‘local ownership’ vs foreign ‘domination’.

The Taylor trial, and the ICC indictment of President al-Bashir of Sudan, highlights the conundrum of African identity in the twenty-first century. Africa has two contrasting narratives: one is a ‘traditionalist’ notion of African identity which is essentially anti- western and sees Africa through a cultural lens of ‘patriotic’ pan–Africanism. The other, post- modernist narrative incorporates western values into a wider African -based variant of universalist moral responsibility. The Taylor trial, which has been managed by Africans (albeit in a western country) epitomises the latter. Sudan’s response to the ICC, and the AU resolution against co-operating with the ICC on the grounds that it represents ‘white man’s justice’, epitomises the former.

Wider implications

The trial offers two very specific policy challenge and opportunity to the west. First, it shows that post conflict reconstruction aid does work; but the obsession with SSR and DDR needs to be balanced with investment in Africa’s justice system, and police capacity-building. Africa needs good lawyers, not bad soldiers. Secondly, the Taylor trial will energise longstanding demands for UK and US ‘war on terror’ leaders to also stand trial. The ICC and other international tribunals have stated that they have no jurisdiction; perhaps so, but this leaves them open to charges of racism and double standards, particularly when most of the accused are Africans or East Europeans. George Bush and Tony Blair may never face trial, but their successors should, at the very least, widen the scope of their current Iraq and Afghanistan enquiries. The terms of reference for these enquiries have been circumscribed, with the aim being ‘lessons learned’, and with little heed paid to moral responsibility and culpability. This complicates western attempts to fashion pragmatic foreign policies based on moral realism. Secondly, it gives ammunition to global protesters who insist that Tony Blair and George Bush should be in the dock alongside Taylor and Bashir. Third, it promotes the appeal of ‘anti-politics’ to a citizenry who feel betrayed by unrepresentative political leaders and institutions.

The trial’s outcome is also vital. If Taylor is found guilty and sentenced, it will be seen as a revolutionary triumph for justice and for the crusade against impunity and immunity for heads of state. If Taylor is found not guilty, regardless of the fairness of the trial, many will see it as miscarriage of justice, and as a gift to authoritarianism.


The crimes committed by forces loyal to Charles Taylor and other leaders during the Liberian and Sierra Leone civil wars remain seared in Africa’s consciousness. In the hearts of the people he is guilty as charged; but this is about justice, not vengeance. Taylor and his victims deserve a fair hearing; due process, whether in an African or international court of law, and whether delivered according to Muslim, traditional or western statutes, must be one of the benchmarks for the African century.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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