Gender Justice and the Charles Taylor Judgement
At 11 a.m. on Apr. 26, the long-awaited trial judgment in the case of Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, was announced at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Taylor faced an 11-count indictment with charges covering a wide variety of atrocities: murder, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, and other inhumane acts as crimes against humanity, and the war crimes of committing acts of terror, murder, outrages upon personal dignity, cruel treatment, pillage, and conscripting or using child soldiers. Taylor was convicted on all counts in a unanimous judgment.
The Taylor judgment made headlines all over the world. Taylor was the first former head of state to be convicted by an international criminal tribunal since the post-Second World War Nuremberg trials. As well, he was convicted for crimes committed in Sierra Leone from 1996-2002, despite not having set foot in the country during that time. The judges found that he had aided and abetted the infamous Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) rebels while across the border in Liberia. He was also convicted of planning attacks with rebel leader Sam Bockarie (who was also indicted by the Special Court, but died in unclear circumstances in Liberia in 2003).
These developments are groundbreaking, but they should not overshadow other important messages stemming from the judgment. Key among them is what the Taylor judgment means for how we respond to gender-based crimes in armed conflict.
For the past 15 years, I have been working as a lawyer in the rapidly developing field of international criminal law, tracking progress in the recognition of rape and other forms of gender-based violence as tools of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. In the mid-1990s, international feminist activists focused on getting international courts to pay attention to the rape of women and girls in war. Today, international prosecutors tend to investigate and charge rape (with varying success rates), and attention has turned to the wider and more complex question of how to ensure gender-sensitivity at all stages of international justice. The Taylor judgment summary (the full written judgment is not yet available) is an illustration of how far we have come.
First, the judgment makes crucial findings, confirming the responsibility of the rebels for sexualized brutality. Girls and women were forced to serve as RUF or AFRC “bush wives” – in reality, sexual and domestic slaves. There was widespread rape of women, girls, men, and boys. The Special Court has outlined how the rebels used brutal and public gang rapes, the insertion of various objects into victims’ genitalia, rape of pregnant women, and forced sexual intercourse between male and female civilian abductees in public and in front of family members as very effective means of terrorizing civilians into submission. Often, it was child soldiers who carried out these terrible acts.
Second, it is incredibly significant that an individual who was president of his country at the time of the crimes has been held individually criminal responsible for aiding and abetting gender-based violence. Taylor’s forms of assistance were many and varied. He provided arms and ammunition, either directly or through intermediaries. He provided operational and financial support – including money, phones, and radio contact – to key rebel leaders. He also supplied Liberian fighters, security escorts, medical support, safe haven, food, clothes, cigarettes, and alcohol to the RUF. He was found to have given moral support to the rebels through ongoing tactical advice and encouragement. And so on. These are also forms of assistance that other heads of state give to proxy fighters – these leaders, too, are aiding and abetting the crime against humanity and war crime of rape in conflicts in other states. [Ed: See ‘If Charles Taylor Can Be Tried for War Crimes, Why Not Kissinger?’ by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.]
The Taylor verdict is an illustration that power is not (always) a shield against justice, including gender justice. This is a strong message. As Kelly Askin of the Open Society Justice Initiative put it,
Leaders have frequently been held accountable for murder, pillage, torture, and countless other crimes committed by others, but courts have shown great reluctance to hold them responsible for sex crimes, treating them as a mere inevitable by-product of armed conflict, not a powerful weapon of war.
Third, the Taylor judgment also shows us how gender-based violence can be used to terrorize. The Trial Chamber found that he had aided and abetted the RUF and AFRC in committing acts of terror through the use of public and other forms of rape, sexual slavery, and outrages upon personal dignity. In fact, the Trial Chamber described this campaign as the AFRC/RUF’s “operational war strategy” because these crimes were inextricably linked to how the RUF and AFRC achieved their political and military objectives. This last finding illustrates how sexual violence during conflict or mass atrocities is usually part of a wider picture of victimization. It shows us the context of rape.
The Taylor judgment summary also shed important light on lesser-known gender-based violations. For example, the judges found that the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the rebels committed widespread acts of outrages upon personal dignity against civilian women and girls – forcing them, for instance, to undress in public.
Finally, this judgment has reverberations in Sierra Leone for those subjected to sexual violence. There has been some measure of accountability, however far removed from the scenes of the crimes: Abioseh, 31, who was forced to serve as an RUF commander’s “bush wife” during the conflict, told IRIN from Makeni, central Sierra Leone, that “Taylor got what he was due – now we have seen justice and can move on.”
In addition, the cases before the Special Court (including Taylor) and the report of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission have helped raise awareness in Sierra Leone about the forms of gender-based violence that took place during the conflict. This increased attention, coupled with local non-governmental activism, has helped in efforts to secure gender-sensitive law reform.
And yet, the judgment in Taylor is far from enough to secure true gender justice. Abioseh still must struggle to provide for her children. Women, girls, men, and boys who are victims of gender-based violence in Sierra Leone still largely lack meaningful domestic law enforcement. Many in Sierra Leone want local prosecution of the lower- and mid-ranking soldiers who committed rape during the conflict, as the Special Court was tasked with only prosecuting the leaders. Our challenge for the next 15 years is quite clear: to link positive gender developments at the international level to real change at the domestic level, in Sierra Leone and everywhere touched by international criminal justice.
Taylor will be sentenced on May 30. Undoubtedly, he will appeal his convictions to the Special Court’s Appeals Chamber. Thus, the story of one leader’s responsibility for sexual violence by proxy is not yet over.