A United Nations special court will deliver a ruling on Thursday in the appeal of ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor’s landmark conviction for war crimes during Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war. As the first former head of state to be convicted at an international war crimes court since Nuremberg, the case is significant one for the cause of international justice.
The possibility that Taylor’s appeal could go the way of Gen. Momcilo Perisic, who was acquitted upon appealing his conviction at the U.N. Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, is a dismaying one for those who had held up the Taylor conviction as evidence of the efficacy of international institutions of justice. The Perisic ruling could also have a bearing on Taylor’s appeal from a legal standpoint by the bar it set on the level of proof needed to uphold war crimes charges for high-level officials. Should the court take that precedent into consideration and also acquit Taylor, look for doubt over the capability of these international court systems to spread.
However, Taylor’s conviction being upheld would force into prominence a set of less obvious but more serious issues. The possibility that his trial would stoke instability in West Africa was real enough that the proceedings were moved to the Netherlands from Sierra Leone’s capital. But this has only reinforced the perception of international justice as something to be doled out by Westerners against Africans. (It also does not help that if his conviction is upheld by the court, Taylor would end up imprisoned in a specially-prepared jail cell in Britain). The former leader, who was convicted of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2012, has always maintained his innocence — along with his share of vocal supporters within Africa. Their arguments about his victimization at the hands of the U.N. may be gaining traction as anti-ICC sentiment has flared across the continent. Though Taylor was tried by a special U.N. tribunal and not the ICC, the distinction will not be significant for those pointing to the unfairness of these institutions in almost exclusively targeting Africans. And with this kind of hostility at an all-time high in the midst of Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto’s ICC trial, the best international-courts advocates can hope for is a mixed victory.