Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Charles Taylor, International Justice, and Amnesty Deals

After a failed attempt to escape from his exile in Nigeria, ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor is in custody of UN officials and has been extradited to Sierra Leone where he will face trial for war crimes. Taylor in under indictiment on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war, where Taylor. in exchange for diamonds, supported Sierra Leonean rebels who are best known for hacking the limbs of their victims and forcing children to join their forces [for more on "conflict diamonds" and the Sierra Leone civil war see this UN report and this Amnesty International report].

According to the news report:
Human rights groups said Taylor's speedy transfer to face justice would send out a strong message on the world's poorest continent, where thousands have endured death and suffering at the hands of dictators, tyrants and warlords.

"Today, Liberia and Sierra Leone are safer and more hopeful places. Today West Africa has moved one step closer to dismantling the devastating grip of impunity," said Corinne Dufka, head of the West Africa office of Human Rights Watch.

Of course, any decent human being must be repulsed by Taylor's complicity in these brutal crimes and our sense of justice demands that he be prosecuted. But is there not a possible downside to Taylor's arrest?

Taylor stepped down as president of Liberia to accept an offer from Nigeria of exile and amnesty from prosecution. This was not a legal deal in that it was not reached as part of a peace settlement or in negotiations between the concern parties. Yet without the deal, Taylor likely would not have stepped down and perhaps continued supporting the civil war. Brutal dictators (Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, etc.) are frequently given amnesty deals in order to get them out of office and begin the process of transition, healing, and rebuilding. If the possibility of those deals disappears, or if the deals are known to be violated with regularity, dictators may prefer to hang on to power for as long as possible, knowing that they will be prosecuted for their crimes.

What to do? This is a tough question. There is most certainly a need for justice. There is also an imperative of demonstrating that sovereign immunity has its limits and that leaders may be held accountable for gross crimes against humanity. But I believe that the world is better of having an option of getting these people out of power. After all, domestic legal systems use plea bargains and deals undermining justice for larger policy goals.

I am glad that Taylor will stand in the dock for his crimes, but I fear for those victims of a future despot whose leader has learned the lesson of Pinochet and Taylor and chooses not to step down.


nicolnichcov said...

Had Taylor remained in exile, how would any of the countless amputees, raped women, and dead be vindicated?

You posted several weeks ago [3/13/2006] about the death of Slobodan Milosevic. You stated that his death was sadly painless (which I agree with), yet you also criticized the capability of the ICTY to pass a guilty verdict. I believe that Milosevic was representing himself no? Regardless, my question is this: what justice exists in your mind for men like this? Is it that they spend their lives in nice houses with cable like Pol Pot?

Charles Taylor, avoided any and all forms of justice. He was arrested with two bags (110 pounds) of cash. My guess is that he wasn't looking to go exploit the new emerging markets in Sierra Leon nor ready to bring peace and harmony to that part of Africa. I am very skeptical of your concept of justice here… On the one hand you clearly believe this man to be of the most abhorrent nature, yet you seem content that the world has the “option of getting these people out of power.” That option delivers no justice, except to the current undead. You also show no faith in the “domestic legal systems” because they “use plea bargains and deals undermining justice for larger policy goals.” However, the court that Taylor will face is a UN court representing international justice. I am well aware of your skepticism of international courts, however, it seems to me that this option represents far more agregate justice than nothing at all. Hopefully, he will also rot to death in his cell... Who knows?

Lisa said...

Plea bargaining analogy: maybe. But domestic legal systems don't offer plea bargains to just anyone. They offer plea bargains to secondary (or tertiary or...) players in order to get the primary ones.

You further suggest that sovereign immunity should be porous. If so, why assume states' options must be passive? In other words, you suggest that the alternative to 1) watching tyrants while doing nothing is 2)watching tyrants while hoping they step down.

However, it's a pretty clear point of international law that sovereignty resides with the population. So, if a government is clearly violating the basic rights (in Liberia: physical security in its most fundamental form) of its population, then that government arguably has no legitimate claim to represent the people's sovereignty. Therefore, who cares about "sovereign" immunity?

The great powers had an obligation to ring Taylor's doorbell in Monrovia and haul him off to the Hague. The people of Liberia deserve no less. Taylor deserves no more.

If the people of Liberia or some other tyranny need relief, they need it now, not when their oppressor decides it's convenient for him to step down.

geoff said...

I think you (the commenters) miss the point. It's not a question of justice -- sometimes justice is a luxury we can't afford. It's not a question, either, of international law. It is simply a question of consequences: What is more likely to hasten the end of brutal regimes like Taylor's (and, sadly, there will be others): Prosecution following abdication or amnesty following abdication? It's not an easy answer, as Seth notes, in part because of the seeming "injustice" of amnesty. But if credible guarantees of amnesty will induce future Chuck Taylors to abandon their brutalising more quickly than will promises of prosecution (which give the dictator a strong incentive to fight and hold on to power), then there is a lot to commend amnesty. Hell, "justice" might even require it.

lisa said...

Geoff (and Seth, of course),

"Sometimes justice is a luxury we can't afford."

I absolutely disagree. Perhaps I just don't understand what definition of "justice" you're using there. I would argue that if justice ever appears to be a luxury we can't afford then we have created a fundamentally unethical system that needs to be replaced.

And you've unnecessarily limited the options. Why is abdication necessarily the first step in future cases? Maybe what we've learned here is that, in cases of fundamental human rights violations, sovereignty is a secondary consideration.

If you want to advance a utilitarian argument, why not this one: stop waiting around for abdication and even more lives will be saved?