Exiled Liberian Warlord Charles Taylor Arrested in Nigeria

Exiled Liberian “warlord” Charles Taylor has been arrested Nigeria for extradition to Sierra Leone for war crimes charges. Taylor helped foment civil wars in two countries that led to more than 300,000 dead and is widely considered among the most vile men of the last quarter century.

AP’s Bashir Adigun:

Taylor, a one-time warlord and rebel leader, is charged with backing Sierra Leone rebels, including child fighters, who terrorized victims by chopping off body parts. He would be the first African leader to face trial for crimes against humanity. While the Sierra Leone tribunal’s charges refer only to the war there, Taylor also has been accused of starting civil war in Liberia and of harboring al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people.

It would be wonderful, indeed, if Taylor is held accountable for his crimes against humanity and it helps change a tragic pattern of behavior in Africa.

There are, however, some legitimate concerns here. For one thing, the United States negotiated in 2003 for Taylor to step down, ending the 14-year civil war in Liberia. Even the UnitedNation’ss Kofi Annan, who loves international tribunals, opposed this handover because it sets a bad precedent. Why would future despots surrender and accept exile if they can simply be hunted down later, without the trappings of power, and be handed over for trial?

And it is not simply a matter of Sierra Leone pursuing Taylor separately; it was done with the full backing of the United States:

Liberia’s new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said in an interview with The New York Times before her inauguration in January that Mr. Taylor’s fate was a relatively low priority, given the myriad problems facing Liberia and the fragility of the peace there. But under intense political pressure on a visit to the United States earlier this month, including a threat by Congress to withhold aid to Liberia if she did not act, she asked Nigeria to hand Mr. Taylor over.

Kayode Fayemi, a Nigerian political analyst who has worked with Ms. Johnson Sirleaf to secure peace in Liberia, said the United States might have made matters worse for Liberia by pushing the country to deal with Mr. Taylor before it was ready. “She was actually literally harassed to do what she did,” Mr. Fayemi said. “This is now going to make the situation much more complicated and so much worse.”

Not only for Liberia but also for the U.S. Again, why would anyone take a surrendered settlement seriously if we will renege soon thereafter?

Aside from all that is the sham of these international tribunals. The practice started in the aftermath of World War II, with show trials in Tokyo that most now agree were shameful acts of revenge rather than justice and the more well-regarded Nuremburg tribunals. Since then, they have been applied after the fact as acts of healing but with decidedly mixed results. The most recent examples, SlobodanMilosevick and Saddam Hussein, have been farcical.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. roberto says:

    Two points:

    The most recent examples, SlobodanMilosevick and Saddam Hussein, have been farcical.

    The Hussein trial is NOT an international tribunal, so conflating it with The Slobo Show is inaccurate.

    Second, it is important to remember that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has dealt with many more criminals other than Slobo–they have indicted 161 and a majority of the cases have been concluded in a legally legitiamte manner. Slobo’s case gets all of the attention, but folks like Haradin Bala, Vidoje Blagojevic, Radoslav Brjanin and other really nefarious criminals are behind bars due to the work of the commission.

    It is also important to remember that the Yugoslav tribunal was a construction of the Security Council–dominated by the US–and not a product of the General Assembly.

    With regard to the Taylor issue, I think it has more to do with US colonial legacy in Liberia than anything else. Liberia was created by the United States and many of its problems were due to consistent US backing of undemocratic regimes there. The curious thing we have now is the Bush administration telling an actual democratic government in Liberia what to do.

  2. anonymous says:

    The UN destroying anything political it has not approved. It is a pattern that will keep them under UN control for as long as possible. Its the money, not the pbest interest of the country.

  3. James Joyner says:

    roberto: Fair point on Saddam. I had considered that as well but they are of the same piece: Post hoc tribunals to “try” those who are by definition guilty.

    Agreed on the trying of lesser officials that remain out of the media spotlight. Those tend to be less kangaroo-like. The post-Apartheid tribunals in South Africa are a case in point.

  4. roberto says:

    Post hoc tribunals to �try� those who are by definition guilty.

    I would advocate for international tribunals for one major reason: if properly done, they can act as an opportunity to develop shared values between disparate cultures.

    I think developing a respect for the rule of law can be a way to do this. Thus, I would say that guilt can be only authoritatively, and legally established after a judicial proceeding.

    The main problem with the Saadam and Solbo trial was the fact that the defendants were/are basically trying to grandstand in order to keep attention off of the evidence presented at the trial. I think that the presence of TV cameras in the courtroom contributes to this.

    Judicial trials need transparency, but I think prohibiting television would go a long way towards making these forums more effective at rendering justice.

    The interesting thing about the Yugoslav court is that anyone can show up at The Hague and view the trial (except for periods when certain witnesses are giving testimony who may be in danger).

    Transparency and development of shared mechanisms of dealing with conflict are something that the international community and the hegemonic powers should strongly advocate.

  5. “why would anyone take a surrendered settlement seriously if we will renege soon thereafter?”

    This is a good point. But there is another side to this. I often exceed the speed limit, which is illegal. About once every 3 years, I get caught. I spend about $75 and 12 hours on an internet class and I am done. In short, not much penalty. So I have a fairly low chance of getting caught and a relatively light penalty when I am caught. Ergo, I don’t worry to much about exceeding the speed limit. I am not alone.

    Taylor may be held up as an example of why a man who is described as “a one-time warlord and rebel leader, is charged with backing Sierra Leone rebels, including child fighters, who terrorized victims by chopping off body parts.” shouldn’t negotiate a surrender and exile because the exile may not be permanent and you have to face charges for the “chopping off body parts”. On the other hand, he may be held up as an example of why you shouldn’t do those things in the first place. That if you do, the certainty of being punished will be high and the punishment will be severe.

    If the chances of getting caught are low, if when you are close to getting caught you can negotiate a deal that will take away most of the punishment and if the punishment is relatively low, surprise, surprise, there is not much incentive to not do these things in the first place.

    The key is we need to be consistent, resolute and unrelenting. I can make a good argument for either the “just stop and we won’t hurt you” or the “start and we are going to hurt you” schools of thought, but we need to pick one. Changing is also okay if the change is relatively permanent (i.e. not just for one administration).