Thursday, May 31, 2012

Justice for Africa

It is possible that some of us passed just a bit too quickly by the news regarding the fifty-year sentence handed down in the Hague on Wednesday to Charles McArthur Taylor, the former president of Liberia who earlier this spring was convicted of an extensive laundry-list of horror-crimes committed between 1996 and 2002 during the civil war in Sierra Leone, the country on the Atlantic coast of Africa to the northeast of Liberia. In that Taylor was the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials that followed the Second World War, it behooves us to take a careful look.

The list of crimes of which Taylor was found guilty—including murder, rape, punitive mutilation, enslavement (and particularly forcing women into sexual slavery), and conscripting children to serve in the military—only tells part of the story, however, because the tribunal was only considering crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, where 50,000 citizens died in the fighting, not crimes committed by Taylor and by men under Taylor’s command in his own country during the so-called Second Liberian Civil War, a conflict that eventually cost at least a quarter of a million Liberian citizens their lives.

It’s easy to wave it all away. Who even knows where these places are? If you had the good fortune to see the 2006 movie Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connolly, and set against the background of the civil war in Sierra Leone, then you know something about the events under discussion. If you had the infinitely greater good fortune, however, to read Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, published by Sarah Crichton Books in 2008 (and of which used hardbound copies are currently available from for the price of exactly one penny), you will know a lot more. (In this regard, I should also mention the remarkable 2008 book, The Bite of the Mango, by Mariatu Kamara, in which the author, who miraculously survived the massacre of her village, describes the experience of being raped as a twelve-year-old only then to have her hands cut off by her attackers for the sole purpose of terrorizing the survivors, and particularly the women, into submission.) But for most of us—including most of everybody who didn’t read Beah’s book or Kamara’s, or who missed Blood Diamond, this will all seem impossibly distant both from our normal frames of reference and the regular scope of our interests. That, however, is not at all how I believe ordinary Americans such as ourselves should relate to these events and particularly to Taylor’s conviction and sentencing.

Liberia, most of us will recall having learned somewhere along the way, is the state in West Africa founded in 1847 by freed black American slaves supported by such American political luminaries as Henry Clay and President James Monroe who believed that the ultimate solution regarding slavery in America was not to emancipate the slaves and make of them American citizens but to repatriate the slaves back to Africa and support their efforts at self-government on their ancestral continent. (The 1816 founding of the American Colonization Society, devoted to fostering support for the repatriation movement and also known as The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, was one of the truly pivotal moments in the history of antebellum slavery. It’s a fascinating story too, one with profound implications for the subsequent history of race relations in America told in detail and with great authority by Eric Burin in his book, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society, published by the University of Florida Press in 2008.) Sierra Leone, most readers will know even less about. It’s right there between Liberia and Guinea, about as far south on its side of the Atlantic as Puerto Rico on the other, but it hardly looms large in the political awareness of most Americans. Home to about six million citizens and one of the world’s major sources of diamonds and gold, the country is nevertheless not at all a prosperous place in which a full 70% of the population lives in poverty. Together, Sierra Leone and Liberia occupy a corner of the world most Americans rarely think about and almost never visit. For most of us, West Africa and its exotically named countries are just…there.

Was Taylor truly evil or just crazy? The dignified man in a blue suit and a yellow necktie in the defendant’s box at the Hague on Wednesday certainly didn’t seem like an insane war criminal. Rather like Eichmann in Jerusalem, Taylor seemed like a mid-level bureaucrat, not at all like the kind of person who—according to testimony during the trial—once forced an aide to demonstrate his loyalty to his leader by eating a human heart, or who would order or authorize the intentional mutilation of children. But that, of course, is just the point: when divested of the political and military platforms that grant them their power over others, all of these types seem harmless because, finally impotent, they truly are powerless. Indeed, just as was the case in Jerusalem in 1962, the testimony itself—in Eichmann’s case specifically regarding the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry—seems beyond belief, and almost impossible to connect with the actual man on trial for crimes that for the vast majority of normal men and women would be unimaginable even to dream up, let alone to carry out. But that, I believe, is part of the lesson to be learned from contemplating Charles Taylor’s fall: that there is no bottom line to the evil regular men and women can devise and carry out when, loosed from their ethical moorings, they abandon all pretense at virtue or at moral decency. That was certainly true of Eichmann and, on a scale only smaller in terms of the final numbers of victims but not in terms of the savagery and depravity involved, it is also true of Charles Taylor. That, I believe, is the lesson to be learned from this week’s events in the Hague.

Taylor himself will soon enough be yesterday’s news. By prior agreement, he will be detained in Holland for as long as the appeals process drags on. (This, it was reported earlier in the week, could easily take a full year.) And then, assuming his conviction and his sentence are upheld, he will spend the rest of his life—he would have to live to be 114 years old to be set free in fifty years—in a British prison. So his story is as over, practically speaking and assuming the appeals process does not result in his conviction being overturned, as Eichmann’s was after his execution. From neither will the world hear again. But it is crucial, I believe, not only to recall their stories, but to insist that their legacy of crime and punishment be remembered not only by ourselves, but by our children and grandchildren as well.

It is encouraging that Taylor was tried by an international tribunal—the judges themselves came from Uganda, Ireland, and Samoa—because it only seems right that crimes committed on this scale, even though the victims in this specific case were citizens of one single country, should be considered crimes against humanity as a whole. The case currently being prepared at the International Criminal Court against Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Côte d’Ivoire now accused of a long list of inhuman acts including the rape and murder of civilians, is scheduled to move forward later this month. And the court has issued an arrest warrant for Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the sitting president of Sudan, for crimes committed against the civilian population in Darfur, where approximately 300,000 citizens have died and another two and a half million citizens have been dislocated in the fighting over these last years. All these are good things.

The International Criminal Court came into existence in 2002 as a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Although it is true that the United States voted against the Rome Statute of 1998 that established the court out of a sense that it would permit the prosecution of American citizens for alleged crimes committed on the territory of their own country and would thus constitute an infringement of those citizens’ civil right to be tried in an American court, then signed it anyway, then “unsigned” it, we should not dismiss the good the court has done to date. (Israel also “unsigned” the Rome Statute after signing it, as has Sudan.) Nor should we condemn the court’s work merely because it was created at an international conference proposed and sponsored by the United Nations, an organization with which it has, as far as I understand, only historical ties. In the case of Charles Taylor, a criminal with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands was brought to justice, and that surely has to count for something! Perhaps, it strikes me, we have reached a reasonable compromise: the rights of American citizens to be free from the threat of prosecution by foreign bodies is safeguarded by our refusal to remain signatories to the Rome Accord and countries like Sierra Leone that acting on their own would never be able to bring a man like Taylor to justice have a court to which they can turn for justice. That doesn’t sound to me like such a bad outcome at all!

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