Thursday, July 16, 2009



Charles Taylor's European trial is not enough to persuade ordinary Africans that western-led justice will benefit them

By Phil Clark
16 July 2009

The image this week of the former Liberian president Charles Taylor, defiant in a black suit and dark sunglasses, taking the stand in a courtroom in The Hague – the first time an African head of state has been prosecuted for mass crimes – resonates powerfully. For many, the trial represents another victory for international justice and another signal of the end to impunity for the likes of Taylor, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Alberto Fujimori – presidents who murdered, raped and tortured civilians before eventually finding themselves in the dock. In Africa, however, the Taylor trial elicits mixed – and more complex – reactions.

Current debates across Africa emphasise the need for accountability for African leaders. But they also demand the same justice for western leaders who have committed grave crimes and greater transparency and effectiveness from the institutions that deliver justice, especially the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is hosting the special court for Sierra Leone's prosecution of Taylor because of security concerns in Sierra Leone. Civil society actors in Nairobi, Kinshasa, Cairo and Freetown have lauded the Taylor prosecution, given the egregious crimes he directed rebels to commit in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002. However, there should be no triumphalism over this trial. There is much disquiet across Africa at the tendency of the ICC and other justice institutions to target deposed African leaders while turning a blind eye to African despots still in power, such as Robert Mugabe, as well as ignoring western perpetrators and their allies.

Two recent events form the backdrop to the Taylor trial and shape interpretations of it across Africa. Earlier this month, delegates to an African Union summit in Libya agreed a resolution to halt co-operation with the ICC over its indictment of the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, for crimes committed in Darfur. The AU leaders stated that the ICC represented a form of neo-colonial intervention in Africa's affairs that would ultimately jeopardise peace and stability on the continent. A week later, in his speech in Ghana, Barack Obama argued that, while "Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at war", it nonetheless suffers from rampant corruption and a lack of accountability among many of its leaders. Obama pledged greater US development support for African countries that tackled elite criminality and chose peace over conflict.

Obama's statements have chimed with African citizens much more than those of their ostensible leaders in the AU. Rwandan, Congolese, Ugandan and Sudanese colleagues have told me over the last week that the AU stance on Bashir is yet another case of African leaders seeking safety in numbers and using the smokescreen of neo-colonialism to hide the same crimes that Obama condemned. They see little wonder in the head of the AU, Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, defending Bashir against calls for international justice. Gaddafi himself is responsible for arms dealing and fuelling conflict in Chad and Darfur and may yet be implicated during the Taylor trial, given the support he provided to the Taylor-backed rebels in Sierra Leone.

At the same time, much of Africa sees hypocrisy in Obama's call for accountability for African leaders, as he equivocates over whether to launch an official inquiry into the Bush administration's policies after 9/11, not least the use of torture against suspected terrorists. Accountability is as necessary in Washington as it is in Khartoum.

Nevertheless, we should not interpret widespread African support for the prosecution of leaders such as Taylor and Bush as an unbending African faith in international justice. To date, most promises of international justice in Africa have gone unfulfilled, leaving the perception that justice is usually delivered for the sake of international judges and lawyers rather than for the victims of violence. While the special court for Sierra Leone's reasons for moving the Taylor trial away from Freetown are sound, in taking the trial to The Hague, the court is repeating a mistake made by the ICC and the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda – prosecuting suspects at a great distance from the populations most affected by their crimes. This denies local populations the chance to see and hear the alleged murderers, rapists and torturers firsthand. As a result, international justice institutions continue to have little direct impact on communities recovering from conflict.

There are also major concerns in Africa over these institutions' choice of trial targets. In the case of the ICC, the court's policy to date has been to pursue (usually middle-ranking) rebel leaders, while eschewing the more difficult cases of sitting government officials in countries such as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a new institution, the ICC has pursued "small fish" in order to secure rapid judicial results and thus achieve international legitimacy. However, in doing so, the court has ignored crimes committed by state actors, such as Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and Congolese president Joseph Kabila – both complicit in atrocities against their own civilians but both also important regional allies of the west. Africa has a long history of political elites manoeuvring to ensure that interventions by international actors ultimately play to their advantage. In extending this historical pattern, the ICC has forfeited legitimacy in its most important constituency – local populations that have directly endured those crimes.

The dismal irony is that after seven years of operation the ICC – the host but not conductor of the Taylor trial – has failed to prosecute any suspects as senior as Taylor. This is unlikely to change any time soon, as Sudanese president Bashir continues to evade the ICC's grasp. While Africa seeks justice for mass crimes, the ICC – and the entire enterprise of international justice – have a long way to go in convincing African populations that this brand of accountability is ultimately for their benefit.