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Proletarian issue 48 (June 2012)
The conviction of Charles Taylor
One rule for leaders who obstruct imperialism, another for those who do its bidding.
On 26 April, the former president of the west African state of Liberia, Charles Taylor, was convicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, related to his alleged involvement in the civil war that afflicted the neighbouring state of Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

The verdict was delivered by the Special Tribunal on Sierra Leone, a court set up in the Netherlands, ostensibly by the United Nations in conjunction with the Sierra Leone government, but actually representing the interests of the leading imperialist powers.

The conviction of Taylor, who before becoming president led his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to power in an armed struggle, is the first such conviction of a former head of state in an international court since the end of the second world war. Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic died before his case in a similar kangaroo court could reach its conclusion.

The case against Taylor is based on accusations that he armed and coordinated the actions of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and that he had financed this through illegal diamond trafficking. This charge secured widespread publicity when the model Naomi Campbell was called to give evidence at Taylor’s trial regarding diamonds that were supposedly given her by Taylor’s aides after she attended a dinner in South Africa that was hosted by Nelson Mandela and attended by both Taylor and Campbell.

The accusation of diamond trafficking itself should highlight the fact that the enormously lucrative international trade in diamonds is legally skewed against the sovereign states in which the diamonds are found and in favour of a handful of imperialist and Israeli-controlled companies.

Anti-imperialist beginnings

Taylor’s connections with the RUF go back to the fact that many of the initial cadres of both this organisation and the NFPL, including Taylor himself, were trained at the World Mathaba, a body set up in Libya under Colonel Gaddafi to provide support to revolutionary movements in Africa and throughout the world.

There is also a close link between Liberia and Sierra Leone, in that both countries were founded by freed slaves – from the United States and the British empire respectively. But this situation was manipulated by the ever-wily imperialists, so that the descendants of the freed slaves looked down on the mass of African people and functioned as an abject elite, behind which imperialist interests (such as the Firestone Rubber Company, in the case of Liberia) exercised almost absolute power.

In contrast, the RUF, who sought to rid their country of the stranglehold of these imperialist puppets, drew its initial support and appeal from some of the poorest sections of Sierra Leonean society, and for a time enjoyed great popularity amongst the masses, who were thoroughly disillusioned with the corrupt elite in the capital Freetown and were attracted by the RUF’s promises of free education and health care and an equitable sharing of the country’s diamond resources.

Lacking any consistent ideology, however, the RUF’s struggle degenerated into one where, reacting to the extreme brutality used by the comprador government in its attempts to suppress them, the RUF itself also perpetrated atrocities, causing it to forfeit much of the support it initially enjoyed. Tellingly, the western media rarely if ever refer to the brutal methods employed by the forces loyal to successive Sierra Leonean regimes, focusing only on those of the RUF, in much the same way as wallowing in the horror of African civil wars waged by men armed with machetes, they play down even more appalling horrors of imperialist wars waged with the carpet bombing of civilian homes and total destruction of public infrastructure.

Imperialist hypocrisy

Taylor’s defence is that he was not responsible for the crimes committed by the RUF. He further told his trial that he was a victim of a conspiracy by the United States, since he was an obstacle to its foreign-policy goals in his region.

Having come to power in 1997 after years of protracted war, by 2003, Taylor was under intense pressure to resign, faced with at least two insurgencies backed by the US and by pro-western states in the region. Facing charges from the special tribunal, he agreed to resign in exchange for asylum in Nigeria.

However, in 2006, the deal was reneged on and Taylor was extradited back to Liberia, where he was immediately arrested and sent to the Netherlands to await trial.

Following his conviction, he further said that the verdict against him was unfair as no western leaders have been brought to trial for the crimes committed by their armed forces. He told the court: “I condemn all atrocities committed all over the world. That includes collateral damage from bombings and drone strikes carried out by powerful nations.”

He also queried why George W Bush, who had authorised torture at Guantanamo, had not been brought before a court.

Taylor, aged 64, is due to be sentenced on 30 May, and the prosecution is demanding an 80-year prison term. Underlining the central role of British imperialism in this charade, Taylor’s sentence will be served in Britain, under a special act of parliament – the International Tribunals (Sierra Leone) Act 2007. Had he lived to be convicted, Milosevic would also have been incarcerated in Britain.

Whatever view one takes of Charles Taylor and his record, he is clearly right in pointing up the manifest hypocrisy of his being tried and convicted while the major imperialist war criminals, like Bush, Blair, Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy, walk free.

As George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian: “The conviction of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, is said to have sent an unequivocal message to current leaders: that great office confers no immunity. In fact it sent two messages: if you run a small, weak nation, you may be subject to the full force of international law; if you run a powerful nation, you have nothing to fear.” (‘Imperialism didn’t end. These days it’s known as international law’, 30 April 2012)
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