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Where Will Africa Trials Lead?

Some analysts see the prosecution of Liberia's Charles Taylor as a milestone. Others say despots are left with no incentive to step down.

April 02, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG — Until last week, former Liberian President Charles Taylor seemed nearly untouchable.

He was forced from power in 2003, exiled to Nigeria and under pressure to face war crimes charges before an international tribunal. But justice couldn't reach him. His vow upon leaving Liberia that "God willing, I'll be back" added to his almost mystical aura of power in West Africa.

Many analysts regard his arrest last week and transfer to the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone as a watershed for the region, sending a message that the richest and most powerful are not beyond the reach of the law. Those who favor prosecuting Taylor argue that it will deter other African tyrants and warlords.

But others argue that it could lead autocrats to the opposite conclusion: It makes no sense to leave power peacefully.

So far, the courts have gone after leaders from weak or rogue states, not major powers, a point some Africans cite in characterizing international justice as something applied unevenly at the convenience of the most powerful countries.

Two recent high-profile cases are examples: Taylor faces trial before a tribunal set up to investigate war crimes during the civil conflict in Liberia's neighbor, Sierra Leone. At the new International Criminal Court in The Hague, the first defendant is Thomas Lubanga, who was a militia leader during the civil war in the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Analysts say some African leaders are reluctant to set a precedent for international prosecutions because of their own dubious records.

Taylor's escape from custody in Nigeria, carrying a large amount of cash and making no attempt at disguise, raised questions about that government's role, as did his arrest as he tried to cross into Cameroon just 24 hours after news of his disappearance.

Eric Witte, co-director of the Democratization Policy Council, a group based in Washington and Luxembourg that promotes democracy, said he believed Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was complicit in Taylor's escape as well as his capture a day later. Obasanjo was in Washington to meet with President Bush and under strong U.S. pressure not to let Taylor get away.

"The level of resistance to Taylor's arrest and transfer and trial demonstrates precisely why it is so important," Witte said. "Obasanjo and others in West Africa were so reluctant to see Taylor arrested because so many of these leaders have skeletons in their own closets. This was an old boys' network and they were looking out for each other's interests while failing to look after their people's interests."

Others fear that warlords will be deterred not from atrocities, but from agreeing to peace deals.

Peter Penfold, former British ambassador to Sierra Leone, said Taylor's exile to Nigeria took him out of the equation and allowed for peace in Liberia. Putting him on trial three years later sends a message that such deals are ultimately worthless, he said.

"You have to persuade both sides to put down their guns and stop shooting, and there are often quite difficult negotiations," Penfold said. "If it is felt that the international community can come in and trample over these agreements and cart people off to war crimes tribunals, what is the incentive for these people to sign these agreements?"

Charles Stith, director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University, argued that prosecuting leaders of the apartheid regime in South Africa would have undermined the negotiated settlement that ushered in the successful transition to democracy.

"Given that Taylor left office because of a negotiated settlement, does this commitment to prosecuting him help or hinder African efforts to deal with problems in future?" Stith asked.

Corinne Dufka, West Africa specialist for Human Rights Watch, said it was rare for tyrants and warlords to give up power unless they had no choice, as was the case with Taylor in 2003.

"Taylor left because his arms supplies dried up. His back was up against the wall," she said. "I think the message should be loud and clear that any exile is a temporary arrangement."

The role of the Special Court for Sierra Leone is to prosecute those with the greatest responsibility for war crimes, but with most of those either missing or dead, it was limited to lower- and mid-level suspects -- until Taylor's arrest.

Gary Bass, author of a book on the politics of war crimes tribunals, said victims are often frustrated by the length of trials and the platform they offer the accused.

"There may be strong dissatisfaction with Charles Taylor having the opportunity to make his case in court," Bass said. "But it's better than private vengeance and it's better than impunity."

People in Sierra Leone have low expectations for the justice system, but the prosecution of Taylor could motivate them to hold politicians accountable for corruption and human rights abuses, Dufka said.

In the old West Africa, the fastest way to power was the gun.

"I think there's a demonstration effect for warlords and would-be warlords," Witte said. "There's a promising new effort underway to reorder the region along the lines of accountability. Bringing Taylor to justice is the single biggest symbol that could shake people from apathy in the region and give them hope there's a different way."

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