15 MAY 2012


It took over a decade, but it was accomplished. When the U.N. Tribunal was formed in the early Nineties, there were more critics and skeptics than practical supporters. Several key countries refused to sign or ratify it. Prevailing perception was that heads of member states would never allow a conviction of one of their own.

Meanwhile, there were so many presentations, submitted by varied prosecutors on several fronts. Specific cases came to the fore then disappeared, confirming a cynical view that it was all a politically correct operation with no practical outcome in sight.

Finally, Charles Taylor of Liberia, long described as the cruelest of thuggish tyrants, was convicted.

There is no need to recall his vengeful torture of his own people. We'll mention just one crime as reported by The New York Times:

"With the civil war raging and Mr. Taylor's gunmen roaming the country wearing the wedding gowns, blond wigs and Halloween masks that some believed would make them bulletproof, many Liberians did not allow their children to stray far from their side. Mr. Brown had taken his son to work with him, so the 10-year-old boy was there to witness what came next.

"First, the soldiers stripped Mr. Brown to his underwear and sat him on the ground. They shot him from behind, then stabbed him in the stomach. Then they dragged the knife up through his chest. And when they were done, the man who wielded the knife that killed Mr. Brown walked up to his son, patted him on head, and said, 'Don't cry.'"

The conviction proved that Taylor ran a campaign to terrorize the civilian population, including widespread looting, public executions, murder and mutilations. Many journalists reported habitual amputation of hands or legs, or both. There was a famous sadistic expression where victims were given a choice to have a "short sleeve" -- meaning cutting their hands to the elbow -- or full cut!

Particularly, there was widespread rape and "sexual slavery" -- as described by the Court against women and girls. Under-aged children were abducted and enslaved as soldiers; their foreheads were carved to keep them in camp or risk discovery if they escaped. One more conviction listed "outrages to personal dignity, violence to life, health, physical or mental well-being of persons." A male witness described how Taylor's soldiers surrounded him with guns, forced him to undress naked and abused him further, threatening to kill him. "Acts of terrorism" recounted how civilians were killed in full public view, their bodies disemboweled "and intestines stretched across the road!" The trial summary went on: "Women and girls were raped in public; people were burned alive in their homes."

The clearly documented conviction of the first head of state is a welcome accomplishment by a slow yet advancing international justice system. More to the point, it should constitute a signal to other heads of state who have treated their own people not as worthwhile partners in a valuable citizenship, but merely as potential victims. Let's hope that this first case will not be the last and that the next one will proceed at a quicker pace. A question that comes immediately to mind is: Who is next?!