Volume 2, Issue 4 (Originally Published 13 August 2012)
On 26 April, Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, was convicted on all counts of an 11-count indictment that alleged that he was responsible for crimes committed by rebel forces during Sierra Leone’s civil war. He was sentenced in May to 50 years in prison.
Taylor is the first head of state to be indicted, tried and convicted by an international tribunal – the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The verdict also sets a precedent in terms of recognizing, and punishing, crimes of sexual violence and terror.
In December 1989 Taylor invaded his own country, Liberia, with the intention of ousting its government. He then presided over a civil war that lasted seven years, in which as many as 200,000 civilians were killed, many by his army of child soldiers. Taylor plundered every resource he could lay his hands on, from gold mines to hardwood timber, while his adolescent fighters raped and murdered at will. A couple of years into his butchery, Taylor instigated a civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, providing arms in return for diamonds. In that country’s civil war, lasting from 1991 to 2002, an estimated 50,000 people died.
Among the 11 counts on which Taylor was convicted was the charge of enabling ‘outrages upon personal dignity’, arising from incidents in which women and girls were forced to undress in public and then raped and sexually abused. In the conviction for terrorism too, the judges found that the raping of women and girls in public was part of the campaign aimed at terrorising the civilian population.
The judgment represents the first time that an international court has convicted a former head of state of responsibility for various forms of sexual violence. The trial judges recognised that rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence were used as a strategic weapon of warfare, intended to harm not only the direct victims, but their families and whole communities. The crimes were widespread and systematic, committed as part of a strategic campaign to impact the conflict by terrorising, demoralising, and destroying the affected civilian populations through sexual violence.
There have now been many judgments in international war crimes tribunals where the accused were found guilty of rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence. But virtually all prior cases incolved the accused perpetrating the rape, or was present, encouraging, ordering, or ignoring the crimes.
While leaders have frequently been held accountable for murder, pillage, torture, and countless other crimes committed by others, courts have been reluctant to hold them responsible for sex crimes, treating these as a mere inevitable by-product of armed conflict, not a powerful weapon of war.
Two of the three trial chamber judges were women with experience of presiding over trials involving gender justice crimes.