National Press Club

Panel finds peace, justice in first conviction by international court since Nuremberg

June 6, 2012 | By John M. Rosenberg |

A guilty verdict against former Liberia President Charles Taylor shows that “no one is above the law,” Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at June 5 panel.

Taylor, who received a 50-year sentence May 30, is the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg Trials following World War II.

The panelists discussed the global impact Taylor’s conviction by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague at an event co-hosted by the National Press Club's International Correspondents Committee and the Washington office of Hill Knowlton Strategies.

U.S. Ambassador-at-large Stephen J. Rapp, head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the U.S. Department of State, referenced a Creole saying, “No matter how long the night, the day must come,” to describe the sentence imposed for aiding and abetting war crimes during the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

The effect of Taylor's sentence on ordinary citizens in Africa was profound, said Corinne Dufka, senior researcher with the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “Many had never seen what a court looks like, what the rule-of-law looks like,” Dufka said, adding that it was “revolutionary” for many to see a once powerful individual such as Taylor escorted in handcuffs.

The verdict, coming nearly five years to the day after the trial began, “seems like an enormous amount of time,” said Jonathan Temin, director of the Sudan Program at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “But as a prosecutor, it’s not like with a bank robbery, crimes that are over and done with in less than an hour. These are crimes that in most cases unfolded over the course of days, weeks, months, and years. Such cases are inherently complicated to put together.”

Downie said Sierra Leone showed a great deal of courage in confronting its past. A decade after the conclusion of its 11-year civil war that left more than 50,000 people dead and saw mass rape, enslavement, and countless forced amputations, Sierra Leone enjoys a steady though fragile peace that some believe was put at-risk by the trial.

Said Rapp, “Those who say that justice is incompatible with peace are wrong.''