Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Charles Taylor: Punishment vs. Justice

The International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down Charles Taylor's sentence today, 50 years in prison. Mr. Taylor was convicted of multiple charges of aiding and abetting fighters in Sierra Leone during the war there. While the prosecution was unable to prove that Charles Taylor gave direct orders for the atrocities committed, nor did he personally commit violent crimes in Sierra Leone, his funding and participation in the leadership structure did contribute to the violence and atrocities committed.

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.

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