Justice for Sierra Leone as Charles Taylor found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity

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Image by Peter Mulligan

The Special Court of Sierra Leone, sitting for this case in The Hague, found Taylor criminally responsible for aiding and abetting in crimes including pillage, murder and rape committed during Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war. Taylor was a warlord and later President of Liberia, which shares a border with Sierra Leone. During Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 war, Taylor trained and armed the Sierra Leonean rebel group the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The RUF became notorious for horrific abuses, including sexual violence, cutting off limbs and forcibly recruiting child soldiers.

“One of the key architects of Sierra Leone’s brutal war, which killed tens of thousands and displaced many more, has finally been brought to justice,” said Global Witness Director Patrick Alley.  “Heads of state who commit grave human rights abuses, whether at home or abroad, are no longer beyond the reach of the law.”

Taylor’s trial highlighted the way in which he systematically used natural resources to fund his campaign of regional destabilisation.  Under Taylor’s sponsorship, the RUF seized control of Sierra Leone’s diamond fields, funnelling diamond exports through Liberia to international markets. This trade generated massive revenues for the RUF and provided Taylor personally with millions of dollars. Taylor also used Liberia’s logging industry to fund and provide logistics for armed forces in both Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“Blood diamonds and conflict timber were the fuel for Taylor’s war machine in both Sierra Leone and Liberia,” said Alley. “This verdict sends a clear signal – that those who steal a country’s natural resource wealth and use the proceeds to terrorise its people – can be held to account. It is essential that those international companies and individuals that helped finance Taylor’s activities, by trading in the resources that he stole, are now brought to justice.”

The Taylor verdict comes as both West African countries struggle to restructure their natural resource industries. Sierra Leone is again exporting diamonds and has recently found oil off of its coast. Liberia – which emerged from conflict in 2003 – has adopted new forestry laws and is starting to establish its own oil sector. But reforms in both countries have met considerable difficulties. In Liberia, massive new logging and plantation concessions have been awarded, several in violation of the country’s laws, which risk mass displacement of local people. Sierra Leone has also attracted big investments in plantations, as well as mining. These could help the country escape its dependence on foreign aid, but may also entrench corruption and cause environmental damage.

“Both Sierra Leone and Liberia have taken steps to reform their natural resource sectors but serious threats persist,” said Patrick Alley. “Illegal contracts, badly outdated laws and the persistent failure to prosecute corrupt officials must all be addressed if either country is to make a genuine break with Taylor’s legacy of resource mismanagement.”

The Special Court has now succeeded in delivering justice for many of Taylor’s victims.  However, its jurisdiction does not extend beyond Sierra Leone and Taylor has not yet been held to account for crimes he committed against the people of Liberia, whom he terrorised from 1989 to 2003.

“Unlike in Sierra Leone, no tribunal has been established in Liberia to hold accountable those who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity during the civil war,” said Alley. “The people of Liberia should not have to continue to wait for justice to be brought to those, like Taylor, who committed horrific abuses in their country.”

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Note

1. To accompany this release, Global Witness has produced a background document further outlining issues raised by the Special Court for Sierra Leone verdict. This is available from the Global Witness website: www.globalwitness.org

2. For additional reports produced by Global Witness on Charles Taylor, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the trial of former logging baron Gus Kouwenhoven, visit www.globalwitness.org/campaigns/conflict/post-conflict/liberia.

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