Wednesday, June 04, 2003

If you heard me singing Ode to Joy this morning, it was because I read of that Charles Taylor was indicted by the UN-backed War Crimes Court for Sierra Leone. Who is Charles Taylor? Taylor is a war criminal and former warlord who’s become dictator of West African state of Liberia. It is a good day for humanity, though not as great as the days when he is arrested and put on trial.

Liberia is known by many as the country settled by freed US slaves. These Americo-Liberians, as they are known, promptly set up a system to ensure their social superiority over the “indigenous” folk. This apartheid like system held until 1980, when a group of “indigenous” military officers led by the sadistic Samuel Doe led a coup to oust the civilian government. One of Doe’s top civil servants was Charles Taylor, until the two fell out and Taylor fled to the US. He was arrested, pending extradition to Liberia for embezzlement, but he managed to escape from a Massachussetts jail and eventually found his way to Libya.

In Libya, he made friends with the ever honorable Col. Gadhaffi and a Sierra Leonian exile named Foday Sankoh. Having failed in his ambition to become the Arab world’s next Nasser and in international isolation for his alleged role in various terrorist attacks, Gadhaffi turned his eyes toward gaining influence in sub-Saharan Africa through bribes, generous donations and military excursions; sadly, he has succeeded quite well in spreading his influence.

Doe terrorized and mismanaged the country throughout the 80s and Liberians didn’t think it could get any worse. Of course, it did. On Christmas Day 1989, Taylor invaded Liberia from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire (I believe he was related by marriage to the Ivorian President Felix Houphoeut-Boigny). He was on the verge of capturing the capital Monrovia when a Nigerian-led West African “peacekeeping” force intervened and pushed Taylor’s forces back. A World War I style “active stalemate” took hold for the next several years, with several other armed factions throwing their hat into the ring. But during this period, some of the most horrific war crimes imaginable were perpetrated, with most of them attributed to Taylor’s NPFL forces. Beheadings, cannibalism, burning people alive, forcing drugged-up young soldiers to rape their female relatives. Even on a continent where terrible violence is far too common, Africans were shocked at the appalling brutality of Liberia’s civil war.

This nightmare was mimicked in neighboring Sierra Leone, particularly by the RUF group led by Taylor’s old chum Foday Sankoh. It is widely accepted that Taylor actively funded and armed the RUF, who not only adopted the same atrocities of Taylor’s NPFL, but made amputation of arms and hands (the gender and age of the victims were irrelevant) its most macabre signature.

In 1997, under pressure, Taylor and the other warlords accepted to hold elections organized by a provisional government. Since Taylor’s forces remained in military control of much of the control, they bullied, threatened and harassed their way to a ballot box “victory.” Upon his anointment as “democratic” leader, he was acted like any other third-rate dictator, arresting human rights activists, muzzling what little there is of a free press, etc. But he has done much worse.

Not content with destroying Liberia, Taylor has set his mind on destabilizing the entire West African region. None of his neighbors has been left untouched by Taylor’s vileness. In addition to supporting the RUF in Sierra Leone, he is also seen as the godfather of the MPIGO, the most intransigent of the rebel groups in Cote d’Ivoire. He is also thought to be behind the cross-border attacks into Guinea in late 2000/early 2001 attributed to a mysterious Guinean rebel group that no one had heard of before nor since.

But perhaps the most damaging long-term effects wrought by Taylor and his proteges is the destruction of social cohesion. That he had young, drugged-up troops rape their mothers, chop off the hands of their grandfathers and burn down their villages was not an accident. It was a quite intentional act whose goal was two-fold. First was to shred the existing social order; iconclasm to an unimaginable degree. The other was to ensure loyalty to the warring faction by provoking the youngster’s rupture with his family and friends. It was sinister beyond belief. Liberian and Sierra Leonian societies now are trying to pick up the pieces from what Taylor and his ilk wrought. Needless to say, it is an mind-boggingly difficult and complex task.

The other effect is that thousands of young males have spent their whole lives knowing nothing other than war. They do not know how a regular society functions. They are used to demanding respect by the barrel of a Kalashnakov. As a result, they are used to getting anything they want when they want. They have no education, no skills other than inflicting violence on others.

There are thousands of these young males in Liberia and Sierra Leone. They can not be demobilized because they have no prospects of anything otherwise. Everything they’ve ever gotten in life was linked to their having a weapon. They are thus loathe to give up that weapon. Taylor knows that these young males can not be demobilized so when he assumed power, he sent them to Sierra Leone. This was a double bonus for Taylor. It helped his old friend Sankoh (and gave him a share of the diamond trade Sankoh’s forces controlled) while simulateneously getting rid of this unstable and rest part of his population. With the bored, restless, armed males gone, Taylor could successfully cower those that remained. When peace came to Sierra Leone, those restless, armed males were bored again and thus a potential threat, so Taylor sent them to Cote d’Ivoire to proceed destroying that country.

There is now a rebellion in Liberia, led by a group whose acronym is LURD, which controls about 60 percent of the country. Given that Taylor has destabilized his other two neighbors, no wonder the Guinean head of state, Gen. Lansana Conte, despises him and allegedly supports the LURD.

Due to this military pressure, Taylor was forced into peace talks with the LURD in Accra, Ghana. Apparently the indictment against Taylor was sealed by the Court several months ago but made public only today. This was quite shrewd since it puts pressure on the Ghanaian government to arrest the despot and hand him over. Taylor doesn’t get out much any more, since the imposition of a UN travel ban on him and his government (although he’s been to Paris, which isn’t surprising given France’s historic relations with African dictators).

Yet, it remains to be seen if Taylor will actually be arrested in Accra. No serving head of state has ever been arrested on war crimes’ charges and the Ghanaian government is surely not excited about setting such a precedent. It also complicates the peace talks.

But ultimately, I think this indictment is a groundbreaking event. It sends a message to the most vile scum of the planet: there is no such thing as diplomatic immunity for the most horrific crimes. While the world will probably never reach a time when ALL the worst butchers are put in the dock, it is certainly a glimmer of hope to know that justice is possible for some of those who belong in hell.


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