Wednesday, May 30, 2012
So now Charles Taylor is going to spend the rest of his life in prison in the UK, barring an appeal (said to be forthcoming) and the overturning of his conviction. So imagine it, Charles Taylor suffering through beans and toast for breakfast and bangers and mash for dinner. Okay fine maybe that's not what they give you in prison in the UK. But it just doesn't seem fair. Mind you this is entirely speculative, but I imagine that the prisons in the UK are quite nice compared to those in Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor will probably get more square meals per day while imprisoned than the average citizen of either country. He will have electricity, occasional access to telephone and television, and I imagine he might even be segregated from the general population, sparing him some of the worst things that can happen to a person in prison.
So why, despite the fact that this is a landmark conviction, it is the first time a former head of state has been convicted by the ICC while still living, do I feel so dissatisfied? Charles Taylor has been imprisoned, his physical freedom has been taken away, but where does that leave us? True, it avoids the possibility that he will return to West Africa, run for president of Liberia (as was predicted) and return the nation and region to turmoil. But what else? Charles Taylor sitting in jail munching on marmite sandwiches doesn't help the people in Sierra Leone who lost limbs or parents or children or homes. It doesn't help the children forcibly associated with fighting forces, some of whom have recovered, many of whom continue to struggle, with few skills other than waging war and using drugs, they are a generation who were most powerful and successful during the war, which is dangerous. Unemployed, angry, psychologically scarred young men with access to former leaders of fighting forces, and potentially to arms, are one of the most volatile groups, with the capacity to return country to conflict when they get tired of driving moto-taxis and being looked down upon. Or how does Charles Taylor in jail help the people who were physically disabled during the war, who lost limbs or were blinded? How does it help the girls and women raped by fighting forced? What about those who got pregnant and now are young mothers with no one to support them and children who are products of war and terror.
Punishment is not the same thing as justice. Charles Taylor has been punished, but other than possibly sparing the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia the consequences of his return, there has been no justice. It is common knowledge in Liberia that all those responsible for crimes during the wars cannot face the judicial system, because there would be no one left in government to run the country. Sierra Leone has felt the satisfaction of the acknowledgement of Charles Taylor's role in the conflict, but this was accompanied by the fact that he wasn't in the country. The people who committed crimes against civilians on a day to day basis were not on trial at the ICC.
To quote a friend of mine, there needs to be restitution, not just punishment. How about we take some of Charles Taylor's millions and create scholarships for those affected by the war? What if he funds prostheses for victims of amputation? Money, even to good causes, doesn't fix what happened, but in addition to condoning and perpetuating violence, Charles Taylor stole millions. Since we're punishing him already, and what's he going to do with all that money while in prison anyway, let's redistribute it to some of the people he hurt. Personally, I'd rather he spent his days doing the work to help those people himself, but since that's not possible, I'll settle for his money.
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Don't you hate when you get scooped by NPR? http://www.npr.org/2012/04/28/151575556/in-his-own-country-charles-taylor-still-has-support
Granted I suppose I could have been live tweeting throughout the reading of the Charles Taylor verdict on Thursday, letting you all know exactly what the reactions were around me in Liberia. Maybe next time I'm in a country where the former president is on trial for crimes against humanity.
Charles Taylor was on trial for five years, at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The trial was held at the Hague rather than in Sierra Leone because there was a fear that the trial and verdict could cause instability, among other reasons. After hearing the verdict, a friend and I were discussing the case over lunch, imagining what it would be like if the trial had been held in Freetown, Sierra Leone. And we both decided it would have been chaos. Even with the trial a continent away, people in Monrovia were decorating the road from the airport and getting ready for Taylor's return. Someone I work with told me that that morning, before the verdict, someone was wearing a shirt proclaiming Taylor's guilt, and a crowd chases him until the police had to escort him away for his own safety.
I have been doing my own casual research here to get a sense of how people here felt about the coming verdict, before it was handed down. One person told me that there were lots of supporters still, which after being in Nimba county, which didn't surprise me. I asked him why, and he explained that some of the people are too young to really remember what happened during the war. They remember leaving their homes, they remember how chaotic things were, and they remember Taylor coming out victorious. They don't know or remember what he actually did, and still see him as a powerful leader who represents the best of Liberia. Another person told me that he hoped Taylor would come back, because there is no strong authority in Liberia today. He said that if Charles Taylor came back he could say "Everyone stop robbing cars on highways, and if you don't I will find you" and everyone would obey him. There is no one today who can control and lead the Liberian people.
From my personal perspective, I think that part of it also has to do with the pace of development, and what people expected versus what has materialized. Democracy is often promoted and pursued as though it is a solution, rather than a path. With democracy people have a voice, if they choose to use it, and are allowed to do so freely. However participatory government doesn't actually speed up the development process from what I can see. People in Monrovia may see roads being built, or Ma Ellen (Sirleaf Johnson) passing down Tubman Blvd on her way home from work, but tangible differences in the lives of most Liberians are small. The war is over, but food is more expensive, most people still don't have access to power, pump their water from wells if they're lucky, use hand dug latrines, and if they send their children to school, it's a gamble as to whether there will be enough books and their teachers will be present. So when looking back on the war, things were unstable, but someone was obviously in charge who was promising to make it better. Now someone says Liberians should work together, pay their taxes to contribute to growing Mama Liberia. No one is promising quick fixes, and if you believe that those exist, maybe Charles Taylor, who was apparently extraordinary charismatic, sounded like he promised a better future. When your leader only promises what the country can actually do or slightly more, the future does not seem quite so bright perhaps, and leaves you longing for the days of big hopes and grand gestures, when the government was changing and drastic improvements seemed like a possibility. Maybe when you've grown up in constant instability, calm seems too boring, and change seems too slow. Or maybe Charles Taylor (papay – what older men are called in Liberia), who won an election with the slogan "I killed your ma, I killed you pa, but you still love me," (or something to that effect), is simply a hero to many Liberians, and a kind of hero whose star doesn't dim simply because another country is try to use his as a scapegoat for the violence they perpetrated against themselves. Or so I've heard.
But I think most important is that Charles Taylor would have come back to Liberia if he hadn't been convicted. His ex-wife is a senator, and I highly doubt he would have been able to stay away from politics; he would have been elected. And from there who can say what would happen, whether he would have reached the presidency (whether the UN Mission In Liberia would have allowed him to). Whether the growing economy would have taken a hit, for fear that conflict would begin again; whether some NGOs would have left for the same reason. Whether old resentments would have felt more fresh with him in the country. It's impossible to know the potentially destabilizing effect his return could have cause. But this verdict matters because it means that even with money and power and the love of your people, another country can hold you accountable for your crimes. This verdict matters because it allows Liberia to stay the course, however slow it may appear to some, towards development. No one has ever been punished for the crimes committed during the war in Liberia, referred to locally as World War 1, World War 2, and World War 3. No one has been punished, because those in charge of punishment are also the ones who would be punished. But this verdict matters because, while the risk of future conflict has not disappeared, at least it will not occur at the hands of Charles Taylor, at least not any time soon.