Charles Taylor's Conviction: Reflections of a Prosecutor

JURIST Contributing Editor David Crane of Syracuse University College of Law says that Charles Taylor's conviction should serve as a warning to others who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity...

I looked into his eyes when the presiding judge rendered the unanimous judgment of the trial chamber, guilty on all 11 counts for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity. Well dressed, well behaved former Liberian president Charles Taylor showed no emotion save a slight squint of his eyes. The last judgment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was rendered in The Hague before the world on April 26, 2012. Absent a rightful appeal, the world's first and only hybrid international war crimes tribunal is over, 10 years almost to the day from my appointment as the Chief Prosecutor in April 2002.

It must be stressed that this note is not about me or the wonderful team from around the world who worked so hard to convict Taylor; it is about the people of Sierra Leone and all of West Africa who stepped forward to seek justice, a people who would not go quietly into the night. Last week's judgment was their moment.

During my tenure as Chief Prosecutor, I got to know the people of Sierra Leone very well. Walking across the country for three long years as part of our outreach program, I spent hundreds of hours listening to them and discussing their perspectives on justice and in trying to understand what they went through for 10 long years during the civil war aided and abetted by Taylor. Frankly I couldn't understand — no one could. I told the trial chamber in my opening statement of the joint criminal trial against the leadership of the Civil Defense Force that there was no language in the world that could describe what took place in Sierra Leone (or for that matter Liberia). I told the chamber that they would have to "believe the unbelievable."

From Kabala, Port Locko, to Kissey Town and on to Pujehun their tales of horror will haunt me for the rest of my life. Yet they insisted on telling their story to me, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as in court during the three joint trials conducted in Freetown from 2004 through 2010. Those victims wanted to tell the world what happened to them and their families. It is as if this narration allowed their loved ones to live on, as it should.

What happened last week in The Hague was their moment, their loved one's moment for justice, for closure, for moving forward knowing that there was a record of their passing, their pain and despair. I would like to think that when that judgment was rendered that they truly believed that the rule of law is perhaps more powerful than the rule of the gun.

The judgment sent out a clarion call to all the world's tyrants, thugs and dictators that no longer are they immune from accountability for killing their own citizens. If there is a political willingness to take them on then the jurisprudence stemming from this case, Prosecutor v. Charles Taylor, will be a cornerstone upon which a case will be built for tyrant to face justice.

There is still much to be done in West Africa. Sierra Leone has only started down the long and narrow path to recovery. Its future is uncertain. In neighboring Liberia, their still needs to be an accounting for the destruction of tens of thousands of human beings by Taylor and his henchmen. It must be remembered Charles Taylor destroyed two countries, Sierra Leone AND Liberia. To date there has been no justice for Liberia. Without that justice Liberia has no future. The peace we see now is only illusory. It is time for Liberians to have their moment ... someday.

David Crane is a Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law. He teaches international criminal law, international humanitarian law and national security law. He was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2001-2005. Crane served over 30 years in the US federal government, holding numerous key managerial positions, also serving as the Waldemar A. Solf Professor of International Law at the US Army Judge Advocate General's School.

Suggested citation: David Crane, Charles Taylor's Conviction: Reflections of a Prosecutor, JURIST - Forum, May 3, 2012, http://jurist.org/forum/2012/05/david-crane-taylor-conviction.php.



This article was prepared for publication by Jonathan Cohen, the head of JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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