This past May, the Special Court for Sierra Leone sentenced Taylor, the former president of Liberia, to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting the brutal 1991-2002 armed conflict in neighboring Sierra Leone. While it has been a long road, the successful conclusion of the trial phase was a landmark for war victims, for West Africa, and for efforts to ensure perpetrators of the gravest crimes are held to account. (IntLawGrrls' Sierra Leone accountability series is here.)
The HRW report – which I authored with editorial guidance from my fellow IntLawGrrl Elise Keppler and which I summarize in this post – examines the conduct of Taylor’s trial, the court’s efforts to make its proceedings accessible to affected communities, and perceptions and initial impact of the trial in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is based on interviews in The Hague, London, Washington, New York, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, as well as review of expert commentary, trial transcripts, and daily reports produced by trial observers.
Lessons for Trial PracticeTrials of high-level leaders for serious crimes can be complex, lengthy, and fraught. Yet the Taylor trial largely avoided major disruptions that could have marred the proceedings, and is notable for its relatively well-managed character.
Taylor’s representation by counsel appears to have contributed positively to the generally respectful and organized tenor of the courtroom. Moreover, the trial included a high-quality, experienced defense team.
The Taylor trial also provides a strong model for witness management. The Special Court for Sierra Leone handled complex logistics and support for over 100 witnesses, including insiders who had admitted to extensive criminal activity and victims who had suffered severe trauma.
At the same time, lessons should be drawn to improve future practice in similar types of proceedings, with regard to trial management, representation of the accused, and interaction with potential witnesses and sources.
Notably, the judges adopted practices that sought to prioritize efficiency, but sometimes these practices contributed to delays; examples are the ambitious courtroom calendar in comparison to other tribunals, and the insistence on parties meeting certain deadlines.
Other practices – such as the Trial Chamber’s non-interventionist approach to witness testimony – lengthened proceedings.
More active efforts by the Trial Chamber and Registry to address defense concerns could have encouraged smoother proceedings. Taylor’s first defense team left the case due to concerns over inadequate resources and time to prepare; this led to the appointment of a second team and a hiatus in proceedings. In addition, a delay in rendering a decision on the pleading of joint criminal enterprise raised potential implications for Taylor’s fair trial rights.
Finally, although the provision of funds by the prosecution to potential witnesses and sources during investigations may be unavoidable, it was a contentious issue in the Taylor trial, one that should be managed more effectively in future proceedings.
The Impact of the Taylor Trial in Affected CommunitiesTrials of highest-level leaders are significant beyond the happenings in the courtroom. One crucial objective is to convey a sense of accountability to affected communities so that justice has local resonance. The Taylor trial suggests important lessons for outreach to maximize the impact of future proceedings, particularly those held far from the location of the crimes, as will typically be the case at tribunals like the International Criminal Court.
Consideration of the trial’s impact is constrained by at least three factors:
► First, the Trial Chamber handed down its verdict in April 2012, and it could be years before the trial’s full impact is realized; (at right, © Peter Andersen/SCSL Outreach photo of Sierra Leoneans watching live broadcast of verdict)
► Second, there are inherent challenges to isolating the trial’s impact because, though significant, it is one factor of many in a complex landscape; and
► Third, analysis of the trial’s impact in the report is based largely on information drawn from interviews with civil society members, former combatants, government officials, journalists, and war victims in Monrovia and Freetown.
Despite these limitations, several noteworthy observations are possible:
► First, many people from affected communities are aware of the trial and have reflected on its significance. The Special Court has demonstrated an institutional commitment to conducting outreach, providing a strong model for other courts. Among other activities, court staff created audio and video trial summaries in local languages for dissemination in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and facilitated visits to the court in The Hague by civil society members.
► Second, the trial is seen by affected communities as highly significant and as having increased local understanding of the importance of accountability. Sierra Leoneans and Liberians consistently told Human Rights Watch that Taylor’s arrest and trial helped reveal the possibility for and value of justice in West Africa. (at left, March 2006 © UN photo of Charles Taylor under arrest)
However, the trial is only one part of the much larger process of accountability. It has contributed to increased expectations for justice, but also to frustrations over the absence of greater advances to ensure wider accountability. Sierra Leoneans and Liberians said they felt frustrated that direct perpetrators, former field commanders, and Taylor allies live freely; some even hold governmental and other powerful posts.
Domestic efforts to investigate serious crimes committed in Sierra Leone and Liberia that are beyond the Special Court’s mandate are essential for justice to be done more fully. Lack of political will on the part of the Sierra Leonean and Liberian governments to pursue these cases remains, among other factors, a major challenge.
► Finally, Taylor’s trial, and the court more generally, appear to have contributed to promoting long-term respect for human rights and the rule of law. Nearly all those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the Taylor trial has had some significant positive impact on human rights in West Africa. As one official put it:
'[The trial has] helped … change the historical concept that leaders are above the law and [challenge] the acceptance that leaders and elected officials can use war and violence as way[s] to carry out their personal agendas.'Although major problems persist in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the Taylor trial contributed to an environment in which both countries have held successful democratic elections and made some progress in improving basic human rights.