Prosecuting Heads of State: The Legacy of the Charles Taylor Trial

With the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL) requesting time to deliberate both on the prosecution and defense’s appeals earlier this year, the fight to convict Charles Taylor has been postponed. Again.

On April 26th 2012, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was sentenced to fifty years in prison for aiding and abetting some of the “most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”1 Delivered by the SCSL, an independent tribunal designed to prosecute crimes committed during the Sierra Leone civil war, which lasted from 1996 to 2002, Taylor’s conviction is the first to target a former head of state since the Nuremburg Trials sixty years ago2. Yet, the notion that Charles Taylor’s trial symbolizes an international moral victory is quixotic, especially with the former president’s appeal still looming. Yet regardless of the final result, Taylor’s trial is and will remain an embodiment of what remains the most difficult challenge for international courts today: striking a balance between expressing moral outrage against egregious desecrations of human rights, and preserving the basic rights to which every individual is entitled under the law.

From being criticized as tools for “victor’s justice3” to being viewed as incompetent and bureaucratic institutions too weak to prosecute effectively, international courts have struggled to establish legitimacy for decades. But how, and more importantly, why, have these difficulties persisted? Unfortunately, the answer to such questions is inextricably tied to the nature of a legitimate judicial system itself. Indeed, while international courts must respect due process rights and uphold institutional fairness to remain legitimate, they often find themselves attempting to reconcile these stringent requirements with the desire to wreak moral vengeance on the accused. The solution to this “balancing act” remains elusive. If retribution is conflated with outrage, it is savagery; however, too many protections and the court signals weakness. With the Nuremburg Trials often criticized as an example of this overextension and the political grandstanding afforded to former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic4 characterizing the latter, history seems full of such failures. According to prominent German sociologist Han Joas5, the cause for this paradox is unfortunately one and the same: the emotive process by which we have conditioned ourselves to refrain from cruel punishment is also what mandates it. For modern society, the individual is sacred, but in order to affirm society’s solidarity, the individual must also be punished, especially because they have infringed upon the inviolability of others. And since international courts exclusively deal with crimes of particular heinous nature, the act of balancing between interests certainly doesn’t get any simpler.

Charles Taylor’s trial is no exception to this dilemma. Arrested in 2006 after seeking asylum in Nigeria, Taylor was accused of trading arms with Revolutionary United Front rebels in exchanged for diamonds mined in Sierra Leone,6  This mutually beneficial relationship is what ultimately allowed RUF rebels to continue terrorizing civilians through means such as rape, torture, and the recruitment of child soldiers. For the international community, such acts were unacceptable, and when rebel groups violated a UN peace agreement in 2000, former president Kabbah of Sierra Leone “requested the establishment of an independent court to address the violations committed by the Revolutionary United Force7.”

Recognized as a hybrid institution, the SCSL contains both international and domestic staff, and while normally located in Freetown, Sierra Leone, it tried Taylor at The Hague because of worries that his return to Sierra Leone could spark conflict8. The establishment of the SCSL is indicative of the evolution of international courts because of its inclusion of both domestic and international judicial actors. Not only is the representation of domestic interests a necessary requirement, but the founding of a mixed institution also symbolizes an innovative mechanism to resolve the “balancing act.” Through the inclusion of both domestic and international judicial actors, the SCSL more easily evades charges of politicization since global interests are represented instead of those of specific countries. Thus, it can more effectively function to fairly punish crimes against humanity, and affirms the emotive will of the international community.

When considering the actual events of Taylor’s trial, the phenomenon of the “balancing act” only becomes more apparent. In contrast with the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, whose court performance convinced 39% of the Serbian population to rate his performance superior9, a team of lawyers defended Taylor. Taylor’s representation by counsel reportedly contributed “to the generally respectful and organized tenor of the courtroom10,” and facilitated the focus on substantive legal work instead of political ranting. Thus, in order to bolster its credibility, the SCSL deprived Taylor of his ability to grandstand and influence public perceptions, finding a means to simultaneously assert its dominance over its subjects and maintain appearances of institutional fairness. Additionally, by organizing their indictments into only eleven charges, and inviting victim witnesses to discuss their narratives about their experiences with the RUF11, the prosecution was able to effectively voice the emotional outrage of the Sierra Leone people”, exemplifying the duality of the “balancing act.”. And with Taylor’s guarantee of the right to appeal, the SCSL has continued to establish itself as a legitimate legal institution capable of fairly evaluating the most morally atrocious of cases. Even senior counsels at Human Rights Watch concede individuals ought to welcome Taylor’s appeals process, as “a fair and credible justice means a right to appeal.12

With recent polls indicating an overwhelming percentage of respondents to have identified the correct reason behind Taylor’s trial (65%) and a large majority (67%) agreeing or strongly agreeing that Charles Taylor’s trial has been fair13 (only 18% believe it was unfair), it seems that the solutions international courts have employed to resolve the “balancing act” are headed in the right direction. By respecting basic due process rights, yet simultaneously exercising strict discretion to regulate such rights, courts such as the SCSL have demonstrated no one, even former heads of state, are above the law. And along with the reduction of bureaucratic elements, these attempts at maintaining institutional legitimacy have earned public approval. Yet despite some citizens of Sierra Leone believing Taylor’s conviction to be justice’s triumph over injustice and evil14, others remain unsatisfied, questioning why other individuals who may bear even greater responsibility for the Sierra Leone civil war were not also prosecuted. These criticisms are a salient reminder that mere sentencing is not a panacea for a country’s problems; in order for a nation’s victims to truly move forward, international institutions must not only consistently indict all individuals connected to crimes against humanity, but must also invest more into aiding victims who have experienced such trauma and torture. It is time to recognize merely spending United Nations funding on charging potential criminals is insufficient to help a nation heal its wounds. Nonetheless, the events of Charles Taylor’s trial have forged a legacy the world should rejoice in: international justice that reaches even heads of state may be possible.

[1] Marlise Simons, and J. David Goodman, “Ex-Liberian Leader gets 50 years for War Crimes”, New York Times, May 30th 2012. Accessed July 2nd 2013.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Scharf, Michael P. “The Legacy of the Milosevic Trial” New England Law Review, Volume 37: 4. (2003): 915-933.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Joas, Hans. “Punishment and Respect: The Sacralization of the Person and Its Endangerment.” Journal of Classical Sociology vol. 8 no. 2 (2008): 159-177.

[6] Human Rights Watch. “Even a ‘Big Man’ Must Face Justice: Lessons from the Trial of Charles Taylor.” Human Rights Watch, 2012. Accessed July 1st 2013. < /sierraLeone0712ForUpload.pdf>.

[7] Ellen L. Lutz and Caitlin Reiger, eds. Prosecuting Heads of State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Scharf, “The Legacy of the Milosevic Trial”, 2003.

[10] Human Rights Watch. “Even a ‘Big Man’ Must Face Justice: Lessons from the Trial of Charles Taylor”, 2012.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lisa Bryant. “Charles Taylor Appeals War Crimes Case”, Voice of America, Jan. 22 2013. Accessed July 3rd 2013. <>

[13] Search for Common Ground. “Public Polling in Liberia on Perceptions of the Charles Taylor Trial in the Hague.”  Accessed July 3rd 2013 <>.

[14] Inter Press Service. “Sierra Leone; Taking Solace From a Verdict That Can’t Bring Back Loved Ones.” April 27th 2012. African News. Lexis Nexis.


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