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The Charles Taylor Case And International Justice


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For the first time since World War II, a head of state has been judged guilty of war crimes. This morning, an international tribunal in the Hague convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor on 11 counts of planning, aiding and abetting war crimes committed in Sierra Leone during the 1990s, including murder, rape and the use of child soldiers and sex slaves.

Proponents of international justice believe the case gives victims hope and may deter such crimes in the future. Critics argue the system takes far too long, could be counterproductive, and that it's inherently unfair. The former president of the Ivory Coast now awaits trial. The president of Sudan ignores war crimes charges. But would Russian, Chinese or American leaders ever be called to account?

What was accomplished in this case? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, actor John Larroquette on the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man." But first, Matt Steinglass joins us on the phone from the Hague, Netherlands correspondent for the Financial Times. Nice to have you with us today.

MATT STEINGLASS: Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks. How did Taylor defend the indefensible?

STEINGLASS: Well, the question is more how his lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, defended - it apparently wasn't indefensible because he mounted quite a good defense. The key for him was to show that he was not directly involved in the commission of these atrocities. Nobody disputes, obviously, that tremendous numbers of unspeakable atrocities were committed during the Sierra Leone war. But the question was how to link him to those atrocities.

He was not in Sierra Leone himself. He was president of Liberia at the time. And the task of the prosecution was to try to get evidence and witnesses to show that he was closely involved with the people who committed these atrocities and to some extent had guided them or was responsible for ordering them.

CONAN: And did they - well, they obviously believe they proved that beyond a reasonable doubt.

STEINGLASS: Yes, they believe that. Ultimately the question came down to whether he was going to be proved to have actually had command control over those - over the rebel forces that committed the atrocities or whether there would be some looser type of guilt. And ultimately he was convicted of aiding and abetting the rebel forces that committed the atrocities by providing them with arms and communications equipment and strategic advice, and of being closely associated with them.

But he wasn't convicted of actually commanding or controlling them.

CONAN: And what might that mean for a sentence?

STEINGLASS: There's some question about that as well. We won't really know until sentencing comes along on May 30th. There are some lawyers who have acted as defense lawyers for other Sierra Leonean defendants in these cases at the court, say that this form of guilt is likely to lead to a lesser sentence. But I talked with other lawyers from human rights organizations who said that wasn't true, that given the extraordinarily, the extraordinarily severe nature of the crimes that he was associated with, he is likely to be convicted to quite a long term anyway.

CONAN: And why - this war is now 10 years gone. Why did this all take so long?

STEINGLASS: Well, the case was extraordinarily difficult to make. I mean, first of all, for the first several years after the war, Mr. Taylor was still president of Liberia. So he wasn't - he was not available until he first was forced out of power in Liberia and then ultimately wound up being extradited to the Hague in 2006.

His trial got started in 2007. So it has been five years. But it took the prosecution a long time to gather witnesses. They heard 115 witnesses in this case. There were hundreds and hundreds of documents they had to go over. And again, it was that effort to link him to the leaders of the rebel forces that carried out the atrocities that was so difficult.

They had to make sure that they had people on record who talked about how often they had spoken with Mr. Taylor, what kinds of meetings they had had and what their association was.

CONAN: At least a few of his victims were there in the Hague to see this verdict. What was their reaction?

STEINGLASS: The overall sense, both in Sierra Leone and Liberia, has been extremely positive from the victims. They feel that they've finally seen a measure of justice after quite a long time. People who were in Freetown already, in 2003 and 2004, immediately after the end of the civil war, said that people in Freetown at the time felt if we don't get Taylor, then the justice process will have been meaningless.

So this is a conviction that's been 10 years in coming, and they feel extremely relieved that it's actually happened.

CONAN: And as you mentioned, there is a special court for the war crimes committed in Sierra Leone, and who else is facing justice? How long is this process likely to continue?

STEINGLASS: They've already convicted a lot of people at the special court. They've already - the convictions began coming in 2005. They convicted many lower-level officials of the rebel forces, of the RUF, and other rebel forces in Sierra Leone already.

Taylor's case is seen as sort of the capstone on this whole effort.

CONAN: And given what remains going on in - not in Liberia, that part of the world and Sierra Leone are peaceful at long last, but elsewhere in Africa, in Asia and other parts of the world, crimes continue. Do people really believe that this is going to be a deterrent?

STEINGLASS: A lot of people do, particularly because he was convicted of aiding and abetting these very severe crimes. The standard to meet that type of liability is not as high as the standard to meet a conviction on the basis of actually having command and control.

So there are a lot of places in the world where leaders could be convicted of aiding and abetting forces that are committing war crimes, and human rights organizations are very optimistic that this will serve as a deterrent to other leaders against getting involved with groups that are committing war crimes.

CONAN: Matt Steinglass, thanks very much for your time today, appreciate it.

STEINGLASS: You're welcome.

CONAN: Matt Steinglass, Netherlands correspondent for the Financial Times, with us from The Hague there in the Netherlands. And joining us now by phone from London is William Shawcross, author of "Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11 and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed." And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION. Mr. Shawcross?

We're having a little difficulty establishing contact with William Shawcross. Let's go instead of Elise Keppler, a senior counsel with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, and she's with us from a studio in The Hague, and it's nice of you to be with us.

ELISE KEPPLER: Thank you, good to be here.

CONAN: Thank you very much. What was accomplished today?

KEPPLER: Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone. This is a landmark verdict in showing that those even at the highest levels of power can be held to account for the gravest crimes.

CONAN: Yet as critics are quick to point out, not all of those at the highest level are being held to account. Pol Pot died in bed. Mr. Bashir, the president of the Sudan, defies the warrants out for his arrest. And of course the system of the Security Council makes it clear that, well, none of the great five powers, those leaders would be fundamentally exempt.

KEPPLER: That's absolutely correct. All too often, those in power have been able to evade accountability, and in fact insuring justice for the worst crimes at the highest levels is a relatively new phenomenon, with the exception of Nuremberg. And even today, suspects wanted on crimes of the most serious nature, such as President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, for crimes in Sudan, remain at liberty.

But I think what the Taylor verdict shows is that just because a suspect is not in the dock today does not mean that it will not happen in the future. I remember working with activists across West Africa in 2005 and 2006 to campaign for Taylor's surrender. The situation looked bleak. He had been given safe haven in Nigeria. There was no suggestion that Nigeria was prepared to hand him over at the outset, and yet here we are today watching the verdict handed down this morning for a conviction on the most serious crimes.

CONAN: As you mentioned, there is an inherent limitation, though. If justice is not universal, is it indeed justice?

KEPPLER: It is absolutely correct that to date those associated with powerful governments have sometimes been able to evade justice for the worst crimes. And that is in part due to what you mentioned, the role of the U.N. Security Council. For example, with the International Criminal Court, unless a state is part of that court, a U.N. Security Council would be needed to refer the crimes to the court should an international justice process be necessary.

And of course some governments have the veto on the Security Council, limiting which situations can be referred. At the same time, we take the view that justice should not be denied for all - for some, just because it cannot yet be possible for all.

The answer instead from our view is to work to extend the reach of justice through ratification of the ICC's Rome statute, increasing the number of states that are party to this court and also pressing for justice wherever it occurs and holding those governments that might seek to prevent justice from being done to public scrutiny.

CONAN: I think William Shawcross is back with us on the line. Are you there, sir?

WILLIAM SHAWCROSS: Yes, I'm afraid it's a rather bad connection today from London. I'm sorry.

CONAN: Well, that's quite all right. Again, William Shawcross, author of "Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11 and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed." After all of this time, does the trial and conviction of Charles Taylor suggest that this process is beginning to work at least better?

SHAWCROSS: Work what?

CONAN: At least better?

SHAWCROSS: Well, I think the Charles Taylor conviction is very, very important, clearly. I think it's the first time that a sitting president has been arrested and put on trial. Milosevic was no longer president when he was put on trial. I think the last time this happened was at Nuremberg, when Admiral Donitz, Hitler's successor for a few weeks after Hitler committed suicide, was put on trial at the Nuremberg tribunal. And there's nothing that's happened since then.

So it's very important. And as one of your colleagues just said, the fact that he was convicted of abetting crimes against humanity is a warning to other heads of state or other generals or warlords or whatever that they too stand liable for abetting crimes, whether they're in the Congo or in Syria or wherever. So it's a very important case.

CONAN: And we're trying to speak with you clearly through traffic there, but is a system in which some are exempt and others are not, is something so inherently unfair, well, you work to correct it, but it is unfair.

SHAWCROSS: Who do you mean by some are and some are not? (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: We were talking here just a minute ago with Elise Keppler, and the Security Council system makes it clear that a Russian or Chinese or president of the United States would not be held to account.

SHAWCROSS: Well, frankly, I don't think the president of United States should be held to account.

CONAN: Well, that's another issue.


CONAN: That's another issue.


SHAWCROSS: Yes. No, I think any justice that is meted out to people like Charles Taylor (technical difficulties)...

CONAN: William Shawcross, we're going to try to call you back and get a better line. Stay with us. Please be careful in the traffic. We're talking about international justice and the conviction earlier today of Charles Taylor. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Prosecutor Brenda Hollis said that today's guilty verdict in the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, quote, "brings some measure of justice to the many thousands of victims." Today, she said, is for the people of Sierra Leone who suffered horribly at the hands of Charles Taylor and his proxy forces.

The special court that renders today's judgment was set up jointly by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations. It's the first international criminal tribunal funded entirely by donations from governments. We're talking today about this latest case and the future and fairness of international justice.

Pol Pot died of heart failure in the Cambodian jungle. Idi Amin lived out his life in exile. Slobodan Milosevic died in his prison cell before his war crimes tribunal could come to a verdict. Several leaders await trial right now, but would Russian, Chinese or American leaders ever be called to account?

What was accomplished by the case of Charles Taylor? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is Elise Keppler, senior counsel with the International Justice Program at the Human Rights Watch, with us from The Hague. We're going to try to get William Shawcross back if we can get a better phone line in just a few minutes.

But in the meantime, let's get a caller on the line, and this is Jason, Jason with us from Birmingham.

JASON: Well, thanks so much for having me on. Listen, the question and the comment I had, there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the verdict handed down against Taylor, and I think that that shows us that the people of Earth are ready for an acknowledge the need for a global governing body.

You mentioned the exceptions and those that would be exempt from this type of prosecution. The system's not perfect now, but you know, we have as a species evolved for millions of years, from, you know, thousands of tribes to hundreds of nations, and I think that we're at the point now in our progress that we are ready for a worldwide, global governing body that would hold all nations accountable and that we would as humans learn to live together as a community of nations.

And I think this, the joy and the positive response from this Taylor verdict show us that people are really ready to move past the old ideas of national sovereignty and really move more toward a global community and a global government.

CONAN: Elise Keppler, I think we're a long way between where we are now and global governance, but there is an international court, as you mentioned earlier, the ICC, the International Court, and some of the problems there are its jurisdiction is not universal. Those countries that are not members, not treaty members, are - their leaders, their soldiers, are not subject to its prosecution, and that includes the United States.

KEPPLER: That's absolutely correct that there are certainly limitations. But I think it's worth pointing out that the International Criminal Court is a major step forward. This is a permanent court that has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and can hold perpetrators to account for these crimes.

The court became operational in 2002 and has over 100 states that are members to it. This is one of the best prospects for ensuring that when national courts are not in the position to try these heinous abuses, that there is an international alternative.

JASON: Well, could I just have a follow-up to that real quick?

CONAN: Sure.

JASON: Yeah, the problem is, is that we have other problems other than criminal activity. We have the need for global regulations with trade, global rules as far as child welfare endangerment, child labor. So there are many, many aspects of our lives, as people who are workers around the world, that we have many things we share in common, and the only way for us to really achieve a shared prosperity and world peace is for us to allow this model of the ICC to evolve and turn into more of a United Nations with teeth so that the sovereignty of a nation does not preclude it being held accountable for actions that go against the better interests of the people of Earth.

I think that it's a - and it is really a matter of evolution. We're - we've, you know...

CONAN: Jason, you promised real quick.

JASON: Right, from a million tribes to hundreds of nations to eventually one people and one global governing body.

CONAN: Well, again, Jason, thanks very much for the call.

JASON: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And Elise Keppler, again, we're a long way between then and now, but could the ICC or a court like it take up issues like trafficking, international trafficking in sex slaves?

KEPPLER: One never knows what could be possible in the future, but the ICC does have jurisdiction to deal with sexual crimes and enslavement. So it is dealing with a whole host of serious crimes.

CONAN: Let's bring William Shawcross back in, at least for one question, and William Shawcross, we know you're in straits. You were trying to get to the studio and couldn't make it, and we appreciate your...

SHAWCROSS: I'm so sorry. My train was cancelled, and I apologize. It's very bad reception.

CONAN: That's quite all right, and we appreciate your effort to try to be on the program in any case. But as you look forward, given the hit-or-miss aspect of international justice, what do you think is important to happen next?

SHAWCROSS: Well, if I may just add a note to one of your last speakers who said this should be a step towards global governance, I'm speaking from London, and this is part of the European Union, and I'm afraid the experience of the European Union is one that suggests that global governance would be a complete nightmare. The European Union is a nightmare and is about to collapse in financial, total horror with the failure of the European currency, the euro. So I think dreams of global governance are more likely to be nightmares.

And - but, you know, I think the conviction of Charles Taylor is a very important one. (Technical difficulties)...

CONAN: All right, William Shawcross, we'll let you go, and again, thanks very much for your effort. Here's an email from Robert in Syracuse: Who has standing to initiate a case for war crimes? For example, do private citizens have the ability to accuse their own leaders for actions against foreign nationals? Elise Keppler?

KEPPLER: What we're seeing is that there's really an emerging system of justice for the worst crimes, and there are a variety of ways now that cases can be brought. You have at the national level criminal cases where prosecutors can open those cases, where national courts have the capacity to deal with crimes committed in their own countries.

There's also the prospect of universal jurisdiction-oriented cases, where one country can take up a case for crimes committed elsewhere. Because the crimes are so heinous, they can be pursued anywhere. And in fact, we have a conviction in such a case for torture committed in Liberia, a case that was pursued in the United States, in fact of Charles Taylor's son, Chucky Taylor, and he was tried and sentenced in the United States for torture committed in Liberia.

You also have hybrid courts, like the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone. And you have international courts like the International Criminal Court and the former - courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

There also are aspects of seeing(ph) justice for the crimes that can be pursued by victims. There is a process called partie civile in certain jurisdictions, where victims can help initiate cases. There are as well civil claims that can be pursued by victims such as in the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

CONAN: And what powers does the court have to get fugitive, those who are charged but remain outside of its system - for example, President Bashir in Sudan, is it possible for the criminal court to put any pressure on Sudan that would be effective?

KEPPLER: The issue of arrest and surrender of fugitives is one of the biggest challenges that international courts face. The International Criminal Court, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, they do not have police forces. They are reliant on states to cooperate in surrendering fugitives, which is why it's essential that states who believe that victims deserve redress when horrific crimes are committed bring pressure to bear to see that suspects arrive in the dock.

And we see that, in fact, that pressure can make a huge difference. I remember when the Liberian - new Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, first took office, she indicated that she would not request Taylor's surrender, as Liberia had so many other pressing needs that she did not want to deal with that issue as a matter of priority, while Taylor had safe haven in Nigeria.

Much pressure was brought to bear, including by governments such as the United States and the United Kingdom; civil society activists also campaigned. And what we saw was that several months later, Johnson Sirleaf made the request for Taylor's surrender, indicating that in fact there was so much international pressure around this issue that she could not move forward in dealing with Liberia's challenges unless she requested this surrender.

That is, I think, a really clear showing of the role that governments can play in moving forward with ensuring surrenders. And we look forward to governments that are committed to justice, for example, for crimes in Darfur, governments that are part of the International Criminal Court, but also governments on the U.N. Security Council, to press Sudan to see that President Bashir appears to answer for the charges against him.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chinwendu(ph), and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, in Philadelphia.

CHINWENDU: Yeah, excuse me, yeah, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to add more to the question of fairness in administering justice. How do we compare Charles Taylor's acts with what some of our Western leaders are doing today, abetting rebel forces, supplying arms and equipment? I'm curious to know what the guest thinks about fairness in administrating justice, because some tend to think the ICC as an institution targets leaders and specific people, so it's not quite egalitarian.

A previous caller, I think, mentioned - talked about a global governance system and said it's not perfect but, you know, we're hoping to get there. Now, would it ever be perfect? And I think we already have a global body like the U.N. But how equally distributed is power? How fair are they? Can the guest say a little bit more about fairness?

CONAN: Go ahead, Elise Keppler.

KEPPLER: Yeah. Fairness is, obviously, a critical component to seeing justice done. The efforts to try those implicated in the worst crimes would not have the kind of impact that one would hope without fully fair proceedings with respect to international fair trial standards. In terms of larger questions of fairness and seeing that courts do not target particular individuals, I think it's important to note this issue comes up a lot as to whether or not the International Criminal Court is somehow targeting African leaders.

And that often captures really an inaccurate reality because what we've seen is that more than half the cases that have come before the International Criminal Court had been a result of voluntary referrals by the governments in question. Governments asked the ICC to get involved. At the same time, certain situations, as we've been discussing, may be beyond the ICC's jurisdiction because states are not party to the court. So there are limits on what the ICC can do in terms of the cases it takes up.

In terms of fairness in the actual proceedings, I think it's quite important to note that Taylor had a very well-resourced team and a very expertise defense team. He did have concerns and complaints about his defense representation at the outset, and a change was made. And he was accorded, I think, more than half a year for his new defense team to get up to speed. Taylor also took the stand for nearly seven months, having an opportunity to certainly present his side of the case.

So fairness is absolutely a critical component to this effort and part of what, you know, makes these proceedings that have happened in this process important.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

CHINWENDU: Can I just make a quick follow-up?

CONAN: You could.

CHINWENDU: Yes. So fairness, you said, is critical. Now, at this point, would you assess the system to be fair? It's pretty cool(ph) what you said. But at this point would you think it's fair?

KEPPLER: You know, I think there are - as I've kind of outlined here, I think there are multiple threads in terms of the kind of global fairness of the system that you've pointed to and then fairness in the administration of proceedings. And I think what I might say is, you know, that there is not, as we've talked about, comprehensive access to justice. At this point there is unevenness in the international justice system. Human Rights Watch along with many others are working to make the system as even as possible, including by expanding membership in the International Criminal Court.

CONAN: Chinwendu, thanks very much.

CHINWENDU: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the conviction earlier today of the first former head of state held accountable for war crimes since the end of the Second World War. Our guest is Elise Keppler, senior counsel with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, with us from The Hague, where that trial took place. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. This email from Alex in San Francisco: Is justice for some but not all really justice? Perhaps not.

But does that mean that no justice is better than some? The Hague is far from perfect. The charge that a leader from the U.S., China or Russia would never be brought to the court to account for their actions could be very well be a valid criticism. Does that mean The Hague's conviction of Mr. Taylor as a war criminal is unjust? I disagree with the notion that problem in equal application and equal enforcement by The Hague should bear specifically on the case of Mr. Taylor.

And there's another issue, though, Elise Keppler, that we also hear, and that is that the threat of criminal trials against heads of state can sometimes be counterproductive in an effort to resolve a crisis. It may have been in the case of Colonel Gadhafi in Libya. And some suggest were charges to be brought against President Assad of Syria now and some of the leaders in that country, it might convince them to further dig in their heels rather than to help resolve the situation.

KEPPLER: I'm happy to address the point about whether or not the threat of criminal justice could undermine stability, which comes up a lot. But before turning to that, I just want to also - following on, I think, that very helpful email from Alex, I just want to talk a little bit about the victims in Sierra Leone. Sometimes there are these debates about justice for all, justice for some, I think maybe move us a little bit too far away from the significance of these kinds of decisions for victims.

Back in Freetown in 2004, when I was doing research for a report for Human Rights Watch on the conduct of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, I heard again and again from civil society how central people thought Taylor was to ensuring justice for the crimes in Sierra Leone and how important seeing those at the highest levels held to account was for moving Sierra Leone beyond its past. So there's no question in my mind that this is a triumph for Sierra Leone victims of Taylor's brutal crimes today and incredibly significant in that regard.

CONAN: And you have a minute on the other point, so go ahead.

KEPPLER: OK. In terms of the issue of the threat of criminal justice undermining stability, that's often a point that's made. In fact, it was made when Taylor was first indicted that somehow the indictment or his being(ph) - surrender would undermine stability in West Africa. While there's a certain appeal to the argument, of course, somehow if people think they might be tried, they have no incentive to engage in political negotiations toward a settlement, the reality is we haven't seen much evidence in support of that conclusion. What we've seen is the alternative, that in fact justice has largely promoted respect for rule of law and thereby promoting stability and that things have not in fact unraveled when indictments have been issued, and that the justice process has made a good contribution.

CONAN: The next test could be whether the son and intelligence chief of Colonel Gadhafi end up in court. They are both in custody in various places. As yet, no determination on whether they'll be turned over. Elise Keppler, thanks very much for your time today.

KEPPLER: Thank you.

CONAN: Elise Keppler, senior counsel with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, with us from a studio at The Hague. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.