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The meaning of Charles Taylor’s trial and Obama’s visit

By | Jul 19th 2009 | 3 min read

By Kap Kirwok

It was a week full of powerful symbolism.

There was, for example, the symbolism of the trial of Charles Taylor, the former warlord President of Liberia. Dressed in a dark suit, complete with a prominent label, a Giorgio Armani shirt and tie, with headphones clamped on his head, he looked like a man at an international conference than one accused of horrific crimes.

And there was the symbolism of President Obama, the President of the US, holding a Ghanaian baby. The President is looking into the baby’s eyes, a thoughtful smile on his face, probably wondering: what future lies ahead for such children in a continent riven by conflict and corruption?

But first, the symbolism of Charles Taylor: Here is a man whose very name in popular culture has become synonymous with the devil from hell. An award winning documentary on the Liberian civil war has the apt title Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Charles Taylor faces eleven counts of serious crimes: terrorising civilians, murder, outrages on personal dignity, cruel treatment, and looting; rape, sexual slavery, mutilating and beating, and enslavement; and recruiting and using child soldiers.

Taylor has, of course, dismissed all the charges against him as full of "lies and rumours".

He is the first African leader to stand trial for war crimes. This, no doubt, is highly symbolic. But what is the symbolism? Is this the beginning of the end of the era of impunity? Or, is it, as some say, just another opportunity to show Africa in shameful shackles?

When the International Criminal Court (ICC) came into force on July 1, 2002, it was obvious to many that it would find easy pickings in Africa. Africa has not disappointed. So far the investigations that the court has opened are all in Africa: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Sudan (Darfur). Kenya will soon be joining the list. And yet, as of last month 2009, the court had received complaints about alleged serious crimes in at least 139 countries.

Charles Taylor is being tried within the premises of ICC but by a different court: The Special Court for Sierra Leone, a court set up the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone. A similar judicial mechanism was used for the cases of genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Have not ratified treaty

While there is understandable jubilation in many quarters in Africa to see former "Big Men" standing trial in distant lands, there is something troubling about the act of outsourcing justice.

Despite its current apparent emphasis on Africa, it is foolish to call on African ICC members to withdraw en masse from the court, as some African countries have demanded. Much as I am troubled by the fact that USA and Israel — two countries that have been accused of committing war crimes — have not ratified the treaty establishing the court, I would love to see Big Man Charles Taylor follow his son to prison.

His son, Charles Emmanuel, is already serving 97 years in a USA jail for torture and murder committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war.

The excitement for the Hague option in the Kenyan situation is misplaced, in my opinion – unless the people on trial include the very top of the power hierarchy. It is not sustainable to purport to end impunity and leave a lingering sense of injustice. It would be the equivalent of convicting commanders led by Charles Taylor and Omar El Bashir and leaving the two principals to go free. Justice will not have been served and the assault on impunity will be stillborn.

Kenya has two choices: go for the two principals and their lieutenants or forget it and focus on a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation process. Back to President Obama. There are those who missed the symbolism of a visit to Africa by the first American President of African descent. It is ironic and hypocritical of some Kenyans to applaud the outsourcing of justice to foreigners and yet complain of being lectured by foreigners when Obama’s criticises poor governance and corruption in Kenya. Of course Obama’s primary goal is to secure America’s strategic interests. But that does not mean Kenya and the USA have no shared interests.

—The writer ([email protected]) is an organisational performance consultant based in the United States.

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