By Stephen Gowans, What’s Left
Charles Taylor (above, waiting for trial in The Hague), the former president of Liberia, whose name may forevermore be associated with amputees, child soldiers and blood diamonds, was convicted last week on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an ad hoc tribunal financed by Western nations.
The US State Department hailed the convictions for “sending a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable.”
Taylor was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone on a long list of atrocities, including acts of terrorism; murder; rape; sexual slavery; outrages upon personal dignity; cruel treatment; inhumane acts; recruiting child soldiers; enslavement; and pillage.
With multiple convictions for atrocities of unspeakable infamy, the former Liberian leader must surely personify an evil whose depths few men have plumbed.
Except there’s a fatal flaw in this picture. Taylor committed none of the crimes for which he was convicted—a reality the Court freely acknowledges.
In its April 26 press release announcing Taylor’s convictions, the Court concedes that “the Prosecution had not alleged that Mr. Taylor had committed these crimes in person” but that he had “aided and abetted the rebels (the crimes’ perpetrators) by providing them with arms and ammunition, military personnel, operational support and moral support.” His support of the rebels, the Court concluded, made Taylor “individually responsible for their crimes.”
In other words, Taylor was convicted of doing what the president of the United States, the prime minister of Britain, and the president of France recently did in Libya: arming and supporting an atrocity-committing rebel group.
While we might quibble about whether the atrocities committed by the Libyan rebels were on a greater or lesser scale than those committed by the Taylor-backed rebels in Sierra Leone, there is no question that Nato’s rebels did indeed commit atrocities. According to Amnesty International, they “abducted, arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed” their way through the rebellion, while reducing the city of Sirte to rubble through indiscriminate shelling, a war crime.
In a world in which the rule of law was not simply the law of those who rule, the rebels would be charged with multiple counts of murder, acts of terrorism, outrages upon personal dignity, cruel treatment, and inhumane acts. And while these crimes were not committed personally by Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy, or by lesser Nato leaders either, by the logic of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, they are all individually responsible for these crimes, for they aided and abetted the rebels, furnished them with arms and ammunition, gave them military personnel, provided operational support and supported them morally.
All the same, there will be no Special Court for Libya to prosecute the rebel’s backers, and neither will there be indictments against Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy by the International Criminal Court.
None of this will happen, not because Western leaders are innocent of these crimes, or of crimes on an even greater scale, but because they control the courts.
The function of international courts controlled by Western nations is not to deter atrocities, for atrocities committed in the service of Western imperialism are never prosecuted, but to deter military action against Western interests.
Indeed, Western-controlled tribunals are tools of regime-change. For example, in its quest to depose Syrian president Bashar Assad, “Washington hopes to rely on sanctions; diplomatic pressure; increased engagement with the opposition…and the looming threat of prosecution—all tools at its disposal short of military intervention” for regime change. (My emphasis) 
The US State Department’s assurance that Taylor’s conviction will send a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable, is sheer nonsense.
Nato’s leaders haven’t been held accountable for their atrocities in the courts they control, and won’t be, for obvious reasons.
But they will be held accountable ultimately by their victims, and by the people whose sweat they’ve plundered to pay for their crimes—you and me.
Taylor’s crime was that he backed the wrong side. Had he funnelled arms, military support, operational support and moral support to rebels who worked to advance the project of Western imperialism, as say Qatari leader Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s did in Libya, he would have been feted by the US State Department as a great ally, a champion of freedom.
Instead, Taylor crossed the line of imperial subservience, and for this will bear a reputation for infamy far in excess of the true infamy of his actions.
1. Closing statement of the defense, quoted in Courtenay Griffiths QC, “The Politics of International Criminal Law”, New African, March 2012
2. Neil MacFarquhar, “Cease-fire in Syria exposes heavy price of just buying time”, The New York Times, April 25, 2012.
Added May 17, 2012
Here is Guardian columnist Seumas Milne’s take (“If there were global justice, Nato would be in the dock over Libya”, The Guardian, May 15, 2012).
Taylor, now awaiting sentence and expected to be jailed in Britain, was found guilty of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s. But he was cleared of directly ordering atrocities carried out by Sierra Leonean rebels.
Which pretty well describes the role played by Nato in Libya last year. International lawyers say legal culpability would depend on the degree of assistance and knowledge of war crimes for which Nato provided cover, even if the political and moral responsibility could not be clearer.
But there is of course simply no question of Nato leaders being held to legal account for the Libyan carnage, any more than they have been for far more direct crimes carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only Briton convicted of a war crime over the bloodbath of Iraq has been Corporal Donald Payne, for abuse of prisoners in Basra in 2003. While George Bush has boasted of authorising the international crime of torture and faced not so much as a caution.
Which only underlines that what is called international law simply doesn’t apply to the big powers or their political leaders. In the 10 years of its existence, the International criminal court has indicted 28 people from seven countries for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Every single one of them is African – even though ICC signatories include war-wracked states such as Colombia and Afghanistan.
That’s rather as if the criminal law in Britain only applied to people earning the minimum wage and living in Cornwall. But so long as international law is only used against small or weak states in the developing world, it won’t be a system of international justice, but an instrument of power politics and imperial enforcement.
Just as the urgent lesson of Libya – for the rest of the Arab world and beyond – is that however it is dressed up, foreign military intervention isn’t a short cut to freedom. And far from saving lives, again and again it has escalated slaughter.
Canadian activist Stephen Gowans is founding editor of What’s Left.
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