Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The U.S. looked the other way as Charles Taylor sowed chaos and death in Western Africa

Two White House administrations were slow to recognize and act in reaction to the reign of terror by Charles Taylor upon people of Liberia and those in neighboring countries. On Monday, the trial before the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague began trying Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Liberia became the first independent African republic in 1847 when freed slaves from the United States established it. Its capital, Monrovia, was named for James Monroe, the American president who first supported African-American settlements in Africa. The United States has always had a special relationship with the African republic. In 1980, a military coup toppled the civilian government and set in motion a number of conflicts that produced two civil wars and an ongoing fighting that spilled over into neighboring countries.

The American educated Charles Taylor was elected President of Liberia in 1997 following his leadership in bloody insurgencies in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone that resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 people and a million displaced. He was involved in the blood diamond trade exchanging diamonds for weapons. Soon after in power a rebellion rose against his rule in the Second Liberian Civil War that lasted until he fled the country in 2003. In the meantime, he supported militias attempting to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone. Another 200,000-to-300,000 died as a result of these conflicts.

Americans tried to work with Taylor and seemed all too willing to give him a lot of slack and overlook his tyrannical and corrupt rule. Despite mounting evidence of the nature of his leadership it was December of 2000 before the Clinton administration was ready to take on Taylor but, of course, it was too late because the Clinton administration had come to an end. The incoming Bush administration was no less slow in seeing the Taylor regime for what it was – corrupt and genocidal. By March of 2003, a special court overseeing the prosecution of war crimes in Sierra Leone indicted Taylor. It was August of 2003 before President Bush called on Taylor to step down.

The U.S. convinced Nigeria to offer Taylor exile. He fled Liberia for Nigeria where he lived for three years as a fugitive from the U.N. court. In 2006, the Nigerian government arrested Taylor and turned him over to the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.

Here is Bryan Bender's article in Sunday’s Boston Globe:
In the fall of 1998, as President Charles Taylor consolidated his grip on Liberia, the defense attache at the US Embassy invited representatives of the country's formerly warring factions to a series of dinners at his residence.

The overture was intended to help the West African nation make a fresh start after more than a decade of civil war. But Taylor's government had other ideas: Members of the three opposing factions "who attended these dinners have been shot dead," the embassy bluntly reported to Washington in a secret cable in October.

"When the going gets tough, Taylor intends to rule through the barrel of a gun," the cable continued.

The secret cable, one of dozens obtained by the Globe under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed for the first time how early the United States was tracking Taylor's alleged crimes in his six-year tenure as president.

Despite the State Department's stark conclusion about Taylor's murderous intentions, it took another five years -- during which militias armed by Taylor allegedly caused an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 deaths -- for the United States to call for his ouster.

Much of Taylor's time in office, the United States continued to supply economic aid to Liberia, helped train government personnel, and maintained a policy of watching and waiting, according to the cables.

Tomorrow, Taylor, 59, will become the first African leader to be tried for war crimes when he goes before the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague.

An 11-count indictment charges him with crimes against humanity and other "serious violations of international humanitarian law, including sexual slavery and mutilations" while serving as Liberian president, during which time he allegedly funded the rebels seeking to overthrow the government of neighboring Sierra Leone.

"The picture we will present is of an individual who was the author and leader of the war in Sierra Leone and a form of terrorism the world had rarely seen, including mass murders, mutilations, forced labor, and use of child soldiers," Stephen Rapp, the lead prosecutor, said in an interview.

The cables make clear that US diplomats knew that Taylor, a former Boston - area college student, was behind the death squads in Sierra Leone. Yet the State Department, under the Clinton and Bush administrations, cultivated good relations with Taylor.
You can read the entire article here.

The importance of this trial goes beyond simple justice. A secondary issue is the desire that those in power will realize that if they abuse human rights they cannot escape punishment by the world community. (Of course, the name of Robert Mugabe comes up.)

There is no guarantee that quicker action by the United States and the world community would have ended the death and misery that has plagued Western Africa. However, given the major role Taylor played in those awful events his departure from power would have helped reduce the suffering.

Quicker action would have been the right thing to do.

No comments: