Ian Birrell: A warning shot to the world's despots

Share
Related Topics

The evidence was gruesome. One witness told how he watched his sister being raped and an old woman have her throat slit; another how he saw a pregnant woman buried alive; a third of how she was enslaved and branded; a fourth of how he had first one arm, then the other, chopped off with an axe.

No one doubted the depths of depravity during the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone, which left 50,000 dead, half the population in flight and a nation in ruins. The question was whether the brutality and bloodshed could be legally tied to Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader.

Yesterday, after a six-year trial costing perhaps £150m, we learned that it could. In a landmark ruling, Taylor – who spent more than 50 days in the witness box presenting himself as a maligned peacemaker and victim of a witch-hunt – became the first former head of state convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg military trials of the Nazis.

This is a vital verdict, a much-needed warning shot to despots around the globe. The complex trial lasted far longer than planned, but it proves even the most powerful tyrants can end up behind bars like any other criminal.

Taylor, a Baptist lay preacher, will serve his time in Britain. No jail in West Africa was deemed secure enough to hold him, while the Netherlands did not want to hold him after the trial's end. So Tony Blair broke the deadlock by offering a jail in this country.

Some will criticise the cost of locking up this man here. They will be wrong. Britain's rightful intervention in 2000, with just 800 paratroopers, turned the fortunes of Sierra Leone and re-affirmed strong historical links between our two nations. It is about the only place left on the planet where Mr Blair is still hailed a hero. Britain is well-placed to benefit as the region prospers.

There remain some qualms over the ICC, however. It was formed in 2002, a legacy of the horrors inflicted on Rwanda and Bosnia, but until last month, when it found a Congolese warlord guilty, it had failed to secure a conviction. Early cases were badly mishandled.

Of seven countries currently under investigation, all are African, a fact that causes justified anxiety. The African Union has asked its 54 members not to co-operate with the court, while the former chief prosecutor has admitted they began by going after "low-hanging fruit".

The court will only really prove itself when it can shake off allegations it pursues the weak and provides cover for the West's political aims. History is, of course, written by the victors. So the loser of a Congolese election faces trial over atrocities in his region, but not equally unpleasant forces that supported the government – let alone the Rwandan or Ugandan leaders who sparked the Congolese carnage.

It will take the conviction of such a key Western ally, or a leader from a powerful nation, to prove no one is above the law when it comes to international crimes. Until then, we should applaud a significant step forward in the fight for global justice, but appreciate there remains some distance to travel.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Executive Assistant - London - up to £40,000 + bonus

£33000 - £40000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: Executive Assista...

Social Media Director (Global) - London Bridge/Southwark

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Social Media Director (Gl...

HR Advisor - 6 months FTC Wimbledon, SW London

£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - 6 Months Fix...

IT Manager - Tolworth, Surrey - £40,000

£37000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Tolworth, Surrey - £40,...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: Neigh-Drama Obama, changing welfare and how to tell if you are a journalist

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: Only a game? Far from it

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil