How a New Hampshire Senator, encouraged by the British government, changed US policy and brought Charles Taylor to justice.
As Charles Taylor heard that he was guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the first such charge to be brought against an African Head of State, he may have wondered why he is being held responsible and not others.
Taylor was found guilty by The Special Court for Sierra Leone, a court set up to prosecute “those who bear the greatest responsibility” during the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone civil war. The court found that Taylor aided and abetted the crimes committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels without exercising command responsibility.
Taylor was captured and charged in 2006. But the court was unable to pursue all of those alleged to bear greatest responsibility. The prosecutor found that former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore should bear at least the same responsibility as Taylor for the actions of the RUF. But the US State department informed the prosecutor that if he were to indict Compaore or Gaddafi, American funding to the court would cease and the court would shut down.
At the time, Gaddafi and Compaore were viewed as wielding too much clout in Washington, London, and Paris to be held accountable for supporting the RUF. Compaore, and arms dealer Ibrahim Bah, were cooperating in the war on terror.
Similarly, the prosecution felt unable to pursue Sierra Leone’s then President and Defence Minister, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who had been accused by Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of supporting the government-aligned Civil Defense Forces (CDF) (who committed similar crimes to the RUF).
Elements within the prosecution were concerned that Kabbah’s government would follow through on a threat it made to not cooperate with the Sierra Leone-based court, and thereby cause proceedings to cease.
These political realities left Taylor as the prosecution’s prime target. However, he was not always in America’s bad books. Taylor retained the unwavering support of the Clinton administration in early 2000, having won Liberian elections in 1997. US support of Taylor was lead by then US Special Envoy for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, Reverend Jesse Jackson and the late Black Congressional Caucus leader, Donald Payne. This meant that UK and US policy were opposed, with the UK supporting Kabbah’s government and the US supporting Taylor (and by extension the RUF).
In mid-2000 two important elements changed, shifting US policy against Taylor. Firstly, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Appropriations Committee, Senator Judd Gregg, blocked payments on debt of over $1.7bn owed by the US to the UN, until US policy towards Taylor changed. Gregg was in regular communication with the UK government on Sierra Leone.
Secondly, the Sierra Leonean army, which had sided with the RUF since 1997, switched allegiance back to President Kabbah, after the RUF marginalized the army during 1999 peace negotiations. President Kabbah’s British advisors began encouraging him to be more assertive, despite a 1999 peace deal facilitating a power-sharing government.
Senator Gregg’s blockage of funds meant that education, rehabilitation, and lump sum payments for disarming RUF combatants could not be provided. In May 2000, when RUF combatants were pressured to disarm without any benefits, they took 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. The episode was publicly blamed on RUF belligerence.
Kabbah, in consultation with the UK government, began to round up RUF members of the government in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown. The army and the CDF then led a protest to RUF leader Foday Sankoh’s house before attacking it. Blame for that episode was also attributed to the RUF. This narrative proved very effective.
The Clinton Administration, under public pressure and out of embarrassment at the inability to pay its UN dues then conceded to the British. Senator Gregg met with US Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke. That meeting is very instructive for Charles Taylor’s current situation.
Holbrooke and Gregg agreed to a change in US policy that would crush the RUF and remove Taylor from power in Liberia. It comprised four components directed toward regime change in Liberia and regime support in Sierra Leone.
The first component was military. The US would finance and support a rebellion against Taylor, via the government of Liberia’s neighbour, Guinea. That rebel movement—Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)—would, like the RUF, go on to commit war crimes.
The second component was to investigate Taylor’s links to diamonds, which would justify sanctions on Liberia constraining Taylor’s capacity to fight back against the LURD.
The third component was the provision of US support through USAID to political and civil society opposition to Taylor within Liberia.
The fourth instrument would be a war crimes court that would indict Taylor, attaching a level of stigma that would, along with the other instruments of pressure being brought to bear, make it impossible for him to stay in the Presidency.
This strategy was successfully implemented. However, the Court posed a threat to President Kabbah, who refused to agree to cooperate until after the prosecutor was appointed. Similarly, British personnel had been actively arming the CDF, playing a similar role that had been alleged of Taylor for the RUF. A provision excluding those acting under agreement with Sierra Leone’s government provided amnesty to British government actors and peacekeeping forces.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone was established to pursue Charles Taylor. In doing so it has also set a modern day precedent — that heads of State, if politically expedient, can be prosecuted for committing or supporting war crimes.
Taylor’s story demonstrates the occasionally partisan nature of US foreign policy-making and its vulnerability to manipulation by the British government. It also highlights the key role played by a New Hampshire senator in Charles Taylor’s demise.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.