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Surprising Science

Examining the Role of the International Criminal Court

In March 2003, I served as a member of the prosecution team that drafted an indictment against the then-President of Liberia, Charles Taylor. The crucial role of the International Criminal Court is often misunderstood.

In June of that same year, his indictment was unsealed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a United Nations backed war crimes tribunal set up to try those bearing the “greatest responsibility” for crimes against civilians during Sierra Leone’s eleven year civil war.

The indictment alleged that then-President Taylor, from neighboring Liberia, directed and supported the Revolutionary United Front, the main rebel group fighting an insurgency against the elected government of Sierra Leone.  At the time, Liberia itself was in a state of war against another insurgency. President Taylor, after recieving significant pressure both domestically and internationally, stepped down and was given shelter by Nigeria. 

It took nearly three years, but eventually Mr. Taylor was arrested and, since January 2008, has been standing trial in The Hague. The Special Court for Sierra Leone is using the ICC’s facilities to conduct this trial—the result of fear that a trial within Sierra Leone would destabalize the region. Since Mr. Taylor left power in Liberia, the country has enjoyed both democratic elections and a relatively peaceful and stable period.  While the situation is far from perfect, most observers now agree that Liberia and the region are better off for the indictment of Mr. Taylor and his subsequent departure from power.

In a recent Big Think post about the criminal courts in Sudan, the writer stated that, “There is no precedent for issuing an arrest warrant against a standing leader, and as of now, nobody knows exactly how things are going to play out.”  In fact, the writer overlooks a very important precedant that does, at least, offer some guidance as to what the future holds for President Omar el-Bashir. This leads to a larger issue that constantly confronts those who view the quest for justice as potentially destabalizing. 

In the short term, such actions do indeed add to instability. But opponents of these efforts by the international community to promote justice mechanisms in conflict tend to overlook a significant problem.  What is the alternative?  In some situations, peace accords—ceasefires without a justice mechanism—tend to be worth less than the paper they are written on.  Such was the case in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The respective players and factions would come to the peace table when it suited their interests and break the peace just as easily.  While no situation should be treated as equal, what can really be said about the alternative efforts thusfar to stop the bloodshed in Darfur? They have not worked.  In the long run, the arrest warrant against President Bashir may be the crucial impetus needed to change the current political equation in Sudan for the better. Just as importantly, the victims’ interest have to be taken into account for any approach to the conflict in Sudan.

The West is often accused of double standards in the arena of international justice and given its deplorable history in Africa, there is certainly reason for skepticism by African political elites. Even today, targets tend to be leaders of armed factions while there has been little accountability for the gun runners and western commercial actors involved in these conflicts.  But the perception of double standards cannot be viewed solely from the vantage of African political leaders.  One only needs to speak to the victims themselves to appreciate their need for some degree of accountability.  Western actors would never dismiss victims’ interests at home so callously as some propose doing in the context of Africa, just to get a peace accord.  This is also a double standard.

The efforts by the ICC should be commended and supported.  It may take months or even years.  But the international community has been complacent long enough, and Darfur has burned.  It should now fully support efforts to account for the past, as well as securing the future for this long-suffering region. 


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