At last, the trial of Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, began today before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Taylor stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for supporting and directing the Revolutionary United Front, one of the militias that committed atrocities in Sierra Leone, in exchange for Sierra Leone’s coveted diamonds. (See our prior posts about the trial here.) What makes this trial different than the others already held by the Special Court? After all, the Court’s other prosecutions have been targeted at government officials and militia leaders, in keeping with the understanding that responsibility for atrocities should extend beyond the immediate perpetrators to those who planned and directed the acts.
But this trial targets a different category of accomplices: outsiders who finance and arm militias in full knowledge of their atrocities, either for direct financial benefit (e.g., payoffs of diamonds) or to profit indirectly from the opportunities to seize land and natural resources that are presented by the resulting mayhem (e.g., control of the mines themselves). This kind of outside support radically escalated the level, extent, and duration of violence against civilians in Sierra Leone’s conflict (and has done so elsewhere as well, for example in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Thus, this prosecution is similar in some ways to the ongoing series of Alien Tort Claims Act lawsuits in the US against corporations who knowingly involve themselves in and profit from human rights violations abroad (prior post here), as it seeks to extend liability to the profiteers of international crimes against civilians.
Can the prosecution succeed in proving a direct link between Taylor’s support and the RUF’s misdeeds? Tying such acts to distant leaders is always difficult, and some argue that the available circumstantial evidence here may be insufficient here. But regardless of the eventual verdict in the Taylor case, this effort to extend responsibility to those who knowingly support and profit from war crimes and crimes against humanity is a welcome development.