Global Policy Forum

The Butcher and the Ballot


By Ken Shulman*

International Herald Tribune
October 6, 2005

On Oct. 11, after two years of ineffectual interim rule and two decades of dizzying, demoralizing conflict, Liberians will go to the polls to elect a new Parliament and president. The problems facing the war-torn West African nation are legion. Liberia's physical infrastructure is gutted, its civil and political institutions eviscerated. Eighty percent of all Liberians live below the poverty line; 85 percent are unemployed, including thousands of idle former combatants with easy access to arms.

Still, Liberians are enthusiastic, with voter registration close to 90 percent and thousands of expatriates returning home to participate in the democratic process. While few voters and analysts expect the October vote to effect a miracle cure, the upcoming elections can clearly serve as the first ritual step in what promises to be a long and tortured trail toward recovery.

Unfortunately, next month's democratic ritual will be sterile so long as Charles Taylor remains at large. Since accepting asylum in Calabar, Nigeria, as part of an August 2003 cease-fire agreement, the former warlord turned Liberian president continues to meddle in Liberian and regional politics. Human rights groups claim that Taylor helped spark deadly riots in Monrovia in October 2004, that he orchestrated an assassination attempt on President Lansana Conté of Guinea in January 2005, and that he funds at least 36 autonomous groups across West Africa, including a small, rapid-action military force.

These same groups charge that Taylor controls or influences at least nine of the 22 current Liberian presidential candidates. Taylor's former generals, allegedly on his orders, actively recruit their former soldiers to fight in insurrections in the Ivory Coast and Guinea, further destabilizing an already volatile region. "He is like a vampire," said Jacques Klein, a former United Nations special envoy to Liberia. "Until you drive a stake in his heart, he won't die."

There is no war crimes tribunal in Liberia, where Taylor would undoubtedly be indicted for excesses and abuses committed against his countrymen. But there is one in neighboring Sierra Leone. In June, 2003, one year after its creation, the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued an indictment for Taylor on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor was cited as having "the greatest responsibility" for having helped found, fund, and arm Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front - a ghastly assembly of rebels, mercenaries and child soldiers who distinguished themselves during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war through wanton sexual violence, murder and amputations. He is the court's most visible defendant; the trial is meaningless without him.

Thus far, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria has refused to surrender Taylor to the Sierra Leone tribunal, despite a volley of resolutions and appeals from the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament, human rights groups and regional leaders. Obasanjo cites his obligation to respect the terms of the accord that brought Taylor to Nigeria, and denies the charges levied against his undistinguished guest - charges, that if verified, would constitute a clear violation of the terms of his asylum.

If anything, the Nigerian president's resolve is hardening. Last week, at the airport in Abuja, operatives of Nigeria's State Security Service arrested two printers for possessing posters with the words "Wanted: Charles Taylor." The printers, under contract with the Coalition Against Impunity - a broad alliance of nongovernmental organizations across the globe dedicated to Taylor's extradition - were held incommunicado for three days. Their posters were confiscated, and their workshop shut down.

Like free and fair elections, justice is often more significant as ritual than remedy. No punishment meted out by the special court, however harsh, could redeem the many lives lost or ruined in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Yet placing Taylor on trial in Freetown, in the custody of the court, would at least blunt his influence. Even more, the spectacle of Taylor having to acknowledge and answer for his crimes would help regenerate a faith in justice, a faith as necessary to a democratic society as its faith in the ballot box.

So long as Charles Taylor remains beyond the reach of justice, the Liberian elections can be neither free nor fair. They can only be farce.

About the Author: Ken Shulman was a media fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2003-2004.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Charles Taylor
More Information on the Rogues Gallery
More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone


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