Jus­tice has come call­ing, 26 years on

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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EAR­LIER this month, Liberian Agnes Reeves Taylor was ar­rested by the UK Metropoli­tan Po­lice War Crimes Unit, and charged with tor­ture com­mit­ted dur­ing the First Liberian Civil War.

Due to univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion, sus­pected per­pe­tra­tors of such crimes will find no haven. This case could be of huge sig­nif­i­cance for vic­tims and a vi­tal step to clear the cloud of im­punity that hov­ers over the Liberian civil wars.

Agnes Reeves Taylor, 51, a Coven­try Univer­sity lec­turer in Lon­don and for­mer wife of con­victed war crim­i­nal Charles Taylor, was ar­rested on June 1.

She has been charged with tor­ture al­legedly com­mit­ted be­tween 1989 and 1991 in Liberia by Taylor’s Na­tional Pa­tri­otic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Reeves Taylor ap­peared be­fore a mag­is­trate on June 3 and de­nied any in­volve­ment.

The First Liberian Civil War, which be­gan in 1989 and ended in 1997, re­sulted in 600 000 deaths as Charles Taylor and other armed in­sur­gents sought to over­throw Pres­i­dent Sa­muel Doe.

While all par­ties to the war com­mit­ted grave vi­o­la­tions, Taylor’s NPFL was no­to­ri­ously bru­tal. His troops used tor­ture, mass mur­der and ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion to in­stil fear and gain ground in the bat­tle for con­trol of Liberia.

Only a few of its lead­ers have been held ac­count­able for the atroc­i­ties. Taylor is serv­ing a 50-year prison sen­tence for war crimes and crimes against hu­man­ity com­mit­ted in neigh­bour­ing Sierra Leone, not Liberia.

Do­mes­tic ac­count­abil­ity in Liberia leaves a lot to be de­sired, how­ever, the use of univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion in other coun­tries has pro­vided a mea­sure of hope for the vic­tims.

Univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion is premised on the un­der­stand­ing that cer­tain crimes, for ex­am­ple geno­cide and tor­ture, are harm­ful to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity as a whole. Thus, re­gard­less of where the crime was com­mit­ted, the na­tion­al­ity of the per­pe­tra­tor and who the vic­tims were, if a sus­pected per­pe­tra­tor be found on the ter­ri­tory of a na­tion that has broad univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion laws, they can be in­ves­ti­gated and pros­e­cuted by that na­tion’s courts.

Reeves Taylor’s ar­rest is in line with the UK’s Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Act, which in­cludes an el­e­ment of univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion, though not la­belled as such. It states: “A pub­lic of­fi­cial or per­son act­ing in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity, what­ever his na­tion­al­ity, com­mits the of­fence of tor­ture if in the United King­dom or else­where he in­ten­tion­ally in­flicts se­vere pain or suf­fer­ing on an­other in the per­for­mance or pur­ported per­for­mance of his of­fi­cial du­ties.”

There have been a few oth­ers who have been caught by the net of univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion. Martina John­son, a Liberian cit­i­zen and for­mer ar­tillery com­man­der of the NPLF was ar­rested in Septem­ber 2014 in Bel­gium. She was one of the first peo­ple to be charged with war crimes and crimes against hu­man­ity for her role dur­ing the civil war. For­mer com­man­der of the United Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment for Democ­racy in Liberia, a group that fought against Taylor’s fac­tion, was also ar­rested and charged with war crimes in Switzer­land in 2014.

The use and un­der­stand­ing of univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion varies from ju­ris­dic­tion to ju­ris­dic­tion, but it pro­vides great po­ten­tial for jus­tice and ac­count­abil­ity, par­tic­u­larly in the case of the Liberian civil war.

It is not with­out its con­tro­versy, as politi­cians fear its im­pact and lack of bound­aries.

In 2001, Bel­gium sought to pros­e­cute Ariel Sharon for the mas­sacre of civil­ians in Le­banon in 1982. A few years later in 2003, Bel­gium at­tempted to bring Ge­orge HW Bush to account for the reck­less bomb­ing of Bagh­dad dur­ing the First Gulf War.

The two cases in­spired the US and Nato to take ac­tion to cur­tail the use of univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion. They threat­ened to re­move their Nato base from Brussels if Bel­gium failed to limit the reach of their univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion laws. Bel­gium ca­pit­u­lated and amended its laws in 2003.

The UK is no stranger to univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion in­clud­ing us­ing it to con­vict Be­laru­sian Nazi-col­lab­o­ra­tor An­thony Sa­wo­niuk for his in­volve­ment in the per­se­cu­tion of Jews. At the time of his trial Sa­wo­niuk was a Bri­tish cit­i­zen. Faryadi Zar­dad, an Afghan war­lord liv­ing in the UK at the time of his ar­rest, was also charged and con­victed for the com­mis­sion of tor­ture un­der UK univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion laws.

One need not look far for other sus­pected per­pe­tra­tors who con­tinue to evade jus­tice in their own coun­tries. How­ever, univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion could sig­nif­i­cantly change what is hope­fully a tem­po­rary state of im­punity for “crimes that shock the con­science of hu­man­ity”.

Twenty-six years af­ter the crimes al­legedly com­mit­ted by Reeves Taylor, jus­tice has come call­ing. Per­haps oth­ers sus­pected per­pe­tra­tors will also have their day in court should univer­sal ju­ris­dic­tion be con­struc­tively used to bring jus­tice for the vic­tims.

JAILED: For­mer Liberian pres­i­dent Charles Taylor is serv­ing 50 years for war crimes in Sierra Leone, not Liberia. His wife, Agnes Reeves Taylor, has been charged with tor­ture.

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