The Peril of Good Intentions

Buried in the recent $87.

Buried in the recent $87.5 billion Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, under provisions for "emergencies in the diplomatic and consular service," was a rather extraneous line item that authorized a $2 million bounty "for an indictee of the Special Court for Sierra Leone" without mentioning anyone by name.  The staff of the House Appropriations Committee has subsequently confirmed that reward is for former Liberian leader Charles Ghankay Taylor. Taylor has been living in exile in Nigeria since resigning the Liberian presidency on August 11 under military assault by rebels of the Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), as well as diplomatic pressure international leaders, including President George W. Bush.

According to the indictment unsealed on June 4, 2003, Taylor is charged with trying "to obtain access to the mineral wealth of the Republic of Sierra Leone, in particular the diamond wealth of Sierra Leone and to destabilize the State" and with having "provided financial support, military training, personnel, arms, ammunition and other support and encouragement to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Foday Saybana Sankoh, in preparation for RUF armed action in the Republic of Sierra Leone, and during the subsequent armed conflict in Sierra Leone."  While the spokesman for the congressional committee was unable to tell the New York Times when the bounty clause was added to the legislation or by whom, no doubt the action was motivated by sincere desire to bring the former Liberian warlord to justice. As I noted in these pages earlier this year ("A Realistic Commitment: Balancing National Interests and American Ideals in Liberia," In the National Interest, July 16, 2003), Taylor is probably guilty as charged.  Not only has he contributed more than his share to the regional conflict that has engulfed West Africa for nearly a decade, he is also responsible for a host of human rights and other abuses inflict on his own people, both during the Liberian civil war and during the subsequent misrule following his 1997 presidential election. However, all this notwithstanding, is it in the national interest of the U.S. to be backing the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), much less offering rewards for the capture of those indicted by the war crimes tribunal?

At stake are issues that go far beyond the scope of brutalities of the West African conflicts. In the immediate horizon looms the shadow of Iraq. There is little dispute that  Saddam Hussein - if indeed he is still at large and can be captured alive - and his closest collaborators in the Ba‘athist dictatorship should be made to answer for the crimes that they committed, not only against the Iraqi people, but also against their neighbors, especially the Kuwaitis whose country they devastated during their 1990 occupation, and, in a larger sense, against the international community that they defied up until the end. While the Bush Administration's official position is that those who committed offenses against the rules of war - the mistreatment or worse of prisoners of war, false surrenders-cum-ambushes, the coordination of suicide attacks, etc. - would be tried by courts martial, as provided for by the 1949 Geneva Convention (III) on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, while those charged with other crimes would be tried by Iraqi courts - a reasonable enough approach given that the worst abuses of Saddam's regime were those perpetrated against Iraqis and giving them the chance to judge the offenders would not only permit Iraqis to air their country's past, but would empower them to establish for themselves both the rule of law and the basis for a new judicial system.  However, pressure has been mounting for the Coalition Provisional Authority to accept some sort of internationalized solution such as a special ad hoc tribunal of foreign jurists sitting alongside Iraqi judges.  The model proposed is the SCSL which, in fact, is the only example of a mixed-membership international tribunal. Furthermore, if the Sierra Leone tribunal succeeds in becoming the model for eventual war crimes proceedings in Iraq, a precedent will be consolidated - with U.S. complicity, no less - that would entangle our country in exactly the type of international criminal courts that American political leaders, military officials, and jurists have been uneasy about.  

For these reasons, the SCSL deserves closer scrutiny, especially by the U.S. which, with its annual contribution of $5 million, is the tribunal's biggest bankroller.  Unfortunately, this attention has not been forthcoming, not only because of scant attention generally paid to African affairs by American policy-makers, but because the atrocities committed during the Sierra Leonean civil war were so brutal that righteous indignation seems to have gotten the better of statecraft. While a complete analysis of the SCSL is beyond the scope of this short essay, there are two broad areas of concern.