Trial Chamber II of the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Charles Taylor guilty yesterday of each of the eleven counts for which he was charged, including for conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities.
This is not the first conviction by the Special Court for this war crime, a violation of international humanitarian law, recognized under article 4(c) of its Statute. In fact, the Special Court broke new ground when it convicted three Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) leaders for these crimes, in 2007: the very first time individuals were found guilty by an international or hybrid court for recruiting or using ‘child-soldiers’ (Judgment of Trial Chamber II – AFRC case). These convictions were followed by others before the SCSL, ultimately paving the way for the recent decision of the International Criminal Court, which convicted Thomas Lubanga Dyilo for recruiting children under the age of 15 years into his armed group, or for using them to participate actively in hostilities.
The Taylor judgment has added to the growing jurisprudence on ‘child soldiers’ by convicting an individual for aiding and abetting others in the conscription or enlisting of children under 15 into armed forces/groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities. It will be interesting to see, once the judgment is available, how the Chamber applied this mode of liability to a crime for which knowledge of the age of the victims is essential. From the summary judgment available here, it appears that the Chamber found that Charles Taylor knew that RUF soldiers, under the command of NPFL officers, abducted civilians in Sierra Leone, including children, forcing them to fight within the NPFL/RUF forces against the Sierra Leonean forces and ULIMO (para. 126 of the summary judgment). As early as August 1997, when he became President of Liberia, he was informed in detail of the crimes committed in Sierra Leone, including the abduction of children (para. 129 of the summary judgment).
When reading the judgment, judge Richard Lussick, the presiding judge, recalled that:
'[…] the operational strategy of the RUF and AFRC was characterised by a campaign of crimes against the Sierra Leonean civilian population, including murders, rapes, sexual slavery, looting, abductions, forced labor, conscription of child soldiers, amputations and other forms of physical violence and acts of terror. These crimes were inextricably linked to how the RUF and AFRC achieved their political and military objectives […They ] pursued a policy of committing crimes in order to achieve military gains at any civilian cost, and also politically in order to attract the attention of the international community and to heighten their negotiating stance with the Sierra Leonean government.'(Paragraph 150 of the summary judgment). On this basis, the conscription of children in Sierra Leone seems to have served a dual goal; it was a way to pursue this policy of criminal campaign against Sierra Leonean civilians, victimizing children and their entire families; and in turn, the children, once associated with the armed groups, were used as instruments to commit atrocities and further this policy.
Brenda Hollis (right), the SCSL Prosecutor, commenting on the conviction for recruiting and using child soldiers, declared:
'Children were taken from their families, and not only used to fight, but also to commit crimes against their fellow Sierra Leoneans. This robbed these children of their childhood, and the judges have sent a clear message that this will never be tolerated.'Another aspect of the judgment that should hopefully prove interesting is the Chamber’s approach to defining the terms ‘use to participate actively in hostilities’, and whether it confirms the earlier SCSL jurisprudence on this, or departs from it.
To date, ‘active participation’ has been interpreted somewhat expansively by the SCSL, apparently in an attempt to include the many roles performed by children associated with armed groups and forces, notably by girls, who may be ‘used’ as sexual slaves or in other non-combat roles. This broad understanding has been enthusiastically supported by those seeking to remedy past trends, where girls were too often excluded from the benefits of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs because they could not turn in a gun. However, there is potentially a risk in too broadly defining ‘use to participate’ especially from an IHL targeting perspective, where individuals deemed to directly participate in hostilities lose their protection against direct attack. Perversely therefore, by trying to label more activities as child soldiering, one runs the risk of making more children open to attack.
I argue in a forthcoming article that the international prosecutors of the SCSL and ICC have so far missed the opportunity to charge and convict individuals not only for the recruitment and use of child soldiers but also for the myriad of other crimes suffered by those children who are associated with armed forces and groups, notably rape, sexual slavery, etc. I believe that this would have best captured the full extent of the criminal conduct, and also of the suffering of the victims, and would have also drawn the attention to these additional and separate crimes, important in and by themselves.
We can hope though that some of the victims whose childhood was stolen will get a sense of justice from the judgment. Many children in Liberia suffered from the very same crimes. They, along with other victims of international crimes in that country, are still waiting for justice… Leymah Gbowee (below right), the Liberian peace activist, co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize (credit for photo courtesy of the Nobel site), wrote:
'[..] I find myself thinking about the tens of thousands of young people who as children fought in Charles Taylor’s armies, and whose lives were shattered as a result. […]They were in their teens when I first met them, angry, confused and lost—children who’d been pushed onto a path they didn’t choose, when their parents lost or abandoned them during the fighting, or when the war overran their villages. Today, these damaged children have grown into damaged young people, who still struggle to make the transition from boy to man, from soldier to citizen. They have never been rehabilitated or reintegrated into civil society. They have no jobs or place in our world; their only means of survival is begging in front of supermarkets in Monrovia. […] These young men and women are looking for closure and a way to move forward. We all are.'It will take much more than a conviction to bring a sense of justice and redress to the victims of despicable crimes in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but yesterday is a beginning.