It’s hard to have any sympathy for Charles Ghankay Taylor. During his murderous fourteen-year rampage through West Africa, the former Liberian president was responsible—according to count given earlier this year by David M. Crane, former chief prosecutor of internationally-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, at a Congressional hearing at which I also testified—raping, maiming, mutilation, and/or killing of over one million Africans. And, as if his appalling human rights record did not constitute enough harm to humanity, Taylor also profited handsomely by helping al-Qaeda operatives convert their assets into easily portable conflict diamonds around the time of the 9/11 attacks.
Despite this nasty rap sheet, when his reign of terror finally came to an end in the summer of 2003, an outstanding international warrant for his arrest notwithstanding, Taylor nonetheless managed to abscond to a comfortable exile in Nigeria. Only earlier this year—and then only under relentless international pressure as Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was preparing for a visit to the White House—was Taylor finally handed over to the Special Court, where he was arraigned on some eleven counts of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Late last month, the tribunal, provisionally set the start of his trial in The Hague for April 2, 2007, so that his counsel might have adequate time to prepare. Hence, it may be up to two years from now before Taylor receives the life sentence which his crimes more than merit.
I have devoted two books and several lengthy law review articles to Taylor and his crimes. Furthermore, as I have noted publicly on several occasions, he is one of those individuals for whose very existence gives me personal pause to reconsider my views on both the death penalty in peacetime and “cruel and unusual punishment” in general. All that said, while I clearly hold no brief for the man, I will concede one point to his defense counsel, British lawyer Karim Asad Ahmad Khan: while Taylor, as the indictment against him notes, is “individually criminally responsible” for having “planned, instigated, committed” the various crimes carried out by his subordinated or at least “aided and abetted” in their “planning, preparation, and execution,” he does not bear what the mandate of the Special Court refers to as “greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996.” That dubious distinction belongs to someone else.
In September 1985, Taylor was a penniless fugitive, having just escaped from a federal corrections facility in the United States, the Plymouth (Massachusetts) House of Corrections, where he was being held on a Liberian extradition request. Just four years later, on Christmas Eve 1989, he was a rebel leader launching an insurrection in Liberia that would bring down the brutal strongman Samuel Kanyon Doe. Less than a decade later, in August 1997, he was sworn in as president of Liberia after having turned that country’s civil war into a regional conflict that eventually engulfed four West African countries—Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire—and continues, in part, to do so up to present time. The key to Taylor’s remarkable transformation was Libya’s “Revolutionary Leader,” Colonel Mu’ammar Qadhafi.
When his relations with the Arab world soured in the late 1980s, Qaddafi focused his ambitions southward, where he dreamed of igniting a “revolution” inspired by his Little Green Book by destabilizing countries in sub-Saharan Africa. While Qaddafi’s use of deadly proxies dates back to the 1970s, when he first used his oil wealth to fund terrorist groups and violent insurgencies, it was redoubled after the sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, turned the Libyan leader into even more of an international pariah than he was already. Former prosecutor Crane has acknowledged the existence of a detailed Libyan plan for West Africa that involved the taking down Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire—all of which have seen civil war—and to then move on to Guinea and elsewhere. The strategy was to use West African surrogates who were beholden to Tripoli.
Taylor was introduced to Qadhafi by another protégé of the Libyan leader, Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Campaoré, who himself had seized power in 1987 in a bloody coup supported by Tripoli. Taylor and his small band of followers subsequently received training in Libya at the Mataba military base, a school of terror whose graduates have gone on to wreck havoc across Africa from Angola to Zimbabwe. While under Qadhafi’s tutelage, Taylor met and formed an alliance with yet another beneficiary of Libyan largesse, Foday Saybana Sankoh, whose Revolutionary United Front (RUF) would, in concert with Taylor’s forces, plunge Sierra Leone into the hell graphically documented in Sorious Samura’s award winning documentary Cry Freetown. Also enjoying Qadhafi’s hospitality at the time was Ibrahim Bah, a rebel from Senegal’s Casamance region with ties to both Afghan militants and the Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists, whom Washington Post correspondent Douglas Farah, in his book Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror, would later identify as a key link in the al-Qaeda/West African diamond nexus.
During the ensuing conflict which opened with Taylor’s invasion of Liberia, Qadhafi facilitated the transfer of illegal arms to his West African minions and allowed Libya to be used as a transshipment point for the natural resources they plundered from their war-torn countries—a debt acknowledged by Taylor whose first national budget after he ascended to the Liberian presidency in 1997 included $26 million that his country could hardly spare to repay “war debts” to Libya.
More recently, the “Guide of the Libyan Revolution” has been trying to burnish his international reputation—and he has largely succeeded. In the immediate wake of the U.S.-led invasion Iraq, it was understandable that Qadhafi would try to mollify Washington and its allies by dismantling his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, and even talking about democracy and human rights. It is likewise comprehensible why we would want to dismantle the Qadhafi regime’s weapons of mass destruction program. However, that the West should be so utterly seduced by Qadhafi’s self-interested charade—witness U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s effusive May 15, 2006, statement on the restoration full diplomatic relations which declared Libya “an important model” because of its “re-emergence into the mainstream of the international community”—is beyond pathetic.
If the international community held Qadhafi to account for the lives of the 270 and 170 mainly American and European victims killed, respectively, by the Libyan agents who carried out the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 and the 1989 bombing of UTA 772 over Bilme, Niger, does it not owe the same regard to the more than 250,000 Liberians, 60,000 Sierra Leoneans, and thousands of Guineans and Ivorians killed by the African surrogates of the colonel and for whom no one has sought reparations? One should add that Ivorians are still dying as both direct and indirect consequences of a failed coup-turned-civil war by rebel forces backed by Qadhafi and his protégé, Burkinabè President Campaoré, and that this tally does not begin to count the victims of Middle Eastern terrorism whose killers were backed by Qadhafi over the years.
Charles Taylor now faces an international war crimes tribunal for being one of those who bore “the greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity” in the Sierra Leonean conflict. Even if, for obvious reasons of realpolitik, Taylor’s Libyan patron cannot at the present time be tossed into the dock with him, shouldn’t Mu’ammar Qadhafi at least be named—and shamed—as the principal co-conspirator in the Liberian’s rampage of terror and destruction? Don’t we owe that much to the millions of shattered lives in West Africa as well as to our common humanity?