And why not George Bush?
If the conviction by a UN-backed special court of Charles Taylor, Liberia's former president, and the imposition of a 50-year sentence was intended to convey the message that no one, not even a head of state, is immune from prosecution for crimes against humanity, it is vitiated by the fact that Western leaders like George W Bush who have committed such crimes have gone scot-free.
THE conviction on 26 April of Liberia's former president Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity was hailed by the Western media as a historic milestone in the institutionalisation of an international order based on the rule of law. In reporting this, the media sought to highlight the clear and unambiguous message that the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was sending out with its judgement: no one, not even a head of state, is immune from prosecution for crimes against humanity.
It is necessary to clarify here that, while Taylor was Liberia's head of state at the material time, the crimes in respect of which he was convicted related to the war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. To be more precise, he was convicted of 'aiding and abetting' in the commission of numerous crimes of murder, rape, attacking civilians and deploying child soldiers in the civil war in the neighbouring West African state. He provided support for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), an armed militia which committed unspeakable atrocities against the civilian population. He became notorious for the trade in 'blood diamonds'; he urged the RUF to gain control over Sierra Leone's diamond mines and in exchange for the diamonds, he furnished the rebels with arms which he imported and smuggled.
The trial may well have served to demonstrate the principle that the law is no respecter of persons, but unfortunately there was a fly in the ointment in the accused's plea of mitigation. While fully concurring with the judge's view that no person, no matter how powerful, is above the law, Taylor, in his statement made before the sentence was to be pronounced, went on to raise an uncomfortable question:
'President George W Bush not too long ago ordered torture and admitted to doing so. Torture is a crime against humanity. The United States has refused to prosecute him. Is he above the law? Where is the fairness?'
Relationship with the US
Taylor's motive for raising this inconvenient truth is anything but a concern for justice. It can only be explained by the nature of his relationship with the US. Though born in Liberia, he graduated in the US and became the chairman of the influential Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas. In 1980 when he returned home, he became an official of the country's government but fled to the US when he was charged with embezzlement. In the US he was arrested and imprisoned, pending extradition, in a high-security prison in Plymouth, from which he mysteriously escaped and made his way home. He soon initiated the Liberian civil war and, in 1997, became the country's head of state.
Taylor's escape from the Plymouth prison in 1985 was always something of a mystery, as for over a century no inmate had ever succeeded in breaching its security. The mystery has been somewhat cleared up with the revelation that he had been working for US spy agencies since the 1980s - a fact that surfaced from a recent Boston Globe news report. This confirms Taylor's claim made at his war crimes trial that US intelligence agencies engineered his escape from the US prison.
For US intelligence agencies to have engineered such an escape testifies to the importance the US attached to Taylor's political and intelligence work at this time - a period when the Soviet Union was still active in Africa in support of radical national liberation movements. On his part, he must have been very conscious of his importance and must have expected the US to always shield him from the consequences of his crimes. Hence his bitterness with the US when he discovered (like so many others before him) that the US will not hesitate to dump its loyal servants when it no longer has use for them. Taylor's reference to Bush's culpability for war crimes in his statement in court was his way of hitting back.
Taylor's bitterness is even more explicable when account is taken of the real character of the tribunal before which he was being tried. Though it was dubbed a 'UN-backed special court', the US has had a disproportionate role in its making. As Chris Mahony explained in an article in TheAtlantic.com:
'Unlike the tribunals for Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, the Special Court depended on voluntary financial contributions, of which the US government was the primary funder. Unsurprisingly, the US government has helped lead the court's design and proposed its original prosecutor that selected cases for prosecution: former US Defense Department lawyer David Crane.'1
In other words, it was the US that finally determined in 2006 that Charles Taylor should be prosecuted. By this time, he had apparently outlived his usefulness as the Cold War was over, and had become, as a result of his trade in 'blood diamonds' and the consequent political instability he was causing in the African continent, a liability to the US. For Taylor, this must have been a bitter pill to swallow and probably explains why he chose to embarrass the US with the reference to Bush in his speech.
However, while it is not difficult to impugn Taylor's motives, that in no way invalidates his accusation of double standards. It is apparent that only leaders from the Third World (mainly from Africa) have been indicted for war crimes. The only exception has been a number of leaders from the former Yugoslavia, the most notable being the late Slobodan Milosevic and General Ratko Mladic, whose trial is still continuing. But the prosecution of a few leaders from the Balkan nations in no way eliminates the stigma of Western bias that pervades the operation of these courts. Although a number of the former Yugoslav states may now have gained acceptance as European Union members or applied for EU membership, the truth is that the European identity of the Balkans has always been suspect. As David A Norris noted in his book In the Wake of the Balkan Myth:
'... the Balkans may be regarded geographically as European territory, but it has been written out as a part of European culture. It is the empty side of European consciousness of itself, determined by lack and ambiguity. And yet, it functions to reinforce the West as "self-confidently 'progressive', 'modern' and 'rational'". The West is a full signifier, replete with positive meaning which has created and requires its cultural Other, the Balkans.'2
Norris goes on to illustrate one consequence of this perversion of cultural identities:
'During the Yugoslav civil wars Slovenia and Croatia made huge propaganda ploys to present themselves as not Balkan but truly European by history, by their affiliation to the Catholic rather than Orthodox church, by being an essentially pluralist society with the same democratic traditions as elsewhere in Central Europe. They presented the Serbs, on the other hand, as semi-Asiatic, inclined towards despotic forms of government, and excluded from European traditions since '"Europe' does not include the Orthodox church, 'byzantine' culture or the Balkans". This is actually another domino effect throughout Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall when each state in turn has tried to shift the frontier of where Eastern Europe begins to their border, leaving themselves associated with the West, and their neighbours still outside in the cold of non-European identity.'3
The case of George W Bush
The point is that many Western leaders have committed unspeakable crimes no less horrendous than those committed by those so far indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) or in UN-backed special courts. Yet despite this, calls for their prosecution by human rights organisations have been ignored. The case of George W Bush is just one example. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have made repeated demands since 2010 for his prosecution but to no avail. In fact in 2010, one Professor Francis A Boyle of the College of Law at the University of Illinois even filed a complaint with the ICC against Bush and at least five of his senior officials for allegedly committing international crimes. But again this did not elicit any response.
But despite these failed efforts, the attempts to bring Bush to justice have not abated. The latest of these attempts was the historic verdict recently reached by Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal that the treatment of detainees held by the US military in Bagram, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib constitutes torture as understood and accepted by international law.
The tribunal heard harrowing accounts of torture from victims from Iraq and Afghanistan who had languished at these gulags. Among those who testified before this five-man panel of judges headed by a former Malaysian Federal Court judge was Moazzam Begg, an ex-Guantanamo detainee from the UK, and Jameelah Abbas Hameedi, an Iraqi woman who was tortured in the infamous Abu Ghraib facility.
In his closing submission, Gurdial Singh Nijar, who led the prosecution team, said that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt the commission by the accused of war crimes on charges 'which are similar to those for which the Nazi war criminals were convicted at the Nuremberg trials: "conscious participation in a nation-wide governmentally-organised system of cruelty and injustice, in violation of the laws of war and humanity, and perpetrated in the name of law ."'.
At the end of the week-long hearing, the tribunal unanimously delivered guilty verdicts against Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their key legal advisers. They were all convicted of war crimes for their authorisation of torture in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions 1949, the Convention Against Torture 1984, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Charter, and the US Constitution itself.
While the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal has no powers to enforce its verdict as it is a court of conscience rather than a UN-backed tribunal, the evidence deposed before it and the legal arguments adduced in support of the guilty verdict cannot be ignored. In any case, the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission has submitted the tribunal's finding of conviction and a record of these proceedings to the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, as well as the United Nations and the Security Council.
Clearly we have not heard the last of the campaign to have ex-president Bush prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
T Rajamoorthy, a member of the Malaysian Bar, is Editor of Third World Resurgence.
1. Chris Mahony, 'Victor's justice: What's wrong with warlord Charles Taylor's conviction', TheAtlantic.com, 30 April 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/victors-justice-whats-wrong-with-warlord-charles-taylors-conviction/256522/
2. David A Norris, In the Wake of the Balkan Myth: Questions of Identity and Modernity, 1999, Houndmills: Macmilla n, pp. 12-13.
3. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
*Third World Resurgence No. 260, April 2012, pp 27-29