As the guilty verdict in the five year-long trial of Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, was handed down yesterday in the Hague, Liberians looked to the sky and saw an ominous sign: a perfect circular rainbow around the sun.
There are different interpretations – some say it means that a big man has fallen, others say it’s a sign that the trial was unfair and that Taylor will soon be coming home, or that God is angry because justice wasn’t made. Either way, the interpretations of the rainbow are a powerful reminder of how conflicted Liberian society is about the fate of their former president.
On Thursday April 26, 2012, Charles Taylor became the first head of state to be convicted for war crimes since the Nuremberg trials. The prosecution charged Taylor with 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Sierra Leone between 1999 and 2002. From the beginning, it seemed difficult – though not impossible – to imagine Charles Taylor walking away from this trial a free man. Though he was not convicted for all the initial charges laid in the indictment, and the judges only found him to be “aiding and abetting” rebel forces in Sierra Leone, the guilty verdict seals Taylor’s future. The sentence will come down later next month.
There are have been plenty of mixed emotions in Liberia about the trial and its ramifications. The Special Court for Sierra Leone, operating out of the Hague and backed financially by Western powers, is considered by some in Sierra Leone and Liberia to be a mere approximation of justice. For Liberians especially, who are seeing their ex leader tried in a foreign court, for crimes he committed in a neighboring country, the conviction of Charles Taylor is bitter-sweet. The same way that the rainbow-around-the-sun elicited many different reactions, the Taylor trial – and the verdict – elicited a complex response from Liberian society. Some hoped that he might also be tried for his role in Liberia’s civil war, while others thought he shouldn’t be on trial at all, since Liberia has opted for the path of reconciliation.
As the verdict approached, some worried of the reaction in Liberia. Would it spur angry, disenchanted, marginalized young men to take to the streets? Would Taylor’s die-hard supporters rebel against the verdict? Interestingly, while some people demonstrated in the streets of Monrovia, Taylor’s guilty verdict did not generate large scale anger.
In many ways, Charles Taylor’s power still casts long shadows over Liberia – he is feared, revered, admired and detested by his country men and women. There have been concerns in the past that his return to Liberia could seriously endanger the country – and the region’s – stability, speaking to his enduring influence in Liberian hearts and minds.
The guilty verdict in this trial is a major milestone for international justice, and does send a signal to other heads of state that they will be punished if they commit egregious crimes. It’s also a milestone for Sierra Leone and Liberia and all of West Africa – the former strong man has been diminished, rendered powerless by the justice system. That being said, on both counts, the conclusions we draw must be nuanced. The Special Court for Sierra Leone dealt primarily with a Liberian leader, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that the International Criminal Court will somehow be strengthened by the verdict. Finally, for Liberia and Sierra Leone, the guilty verdict in the Charles Taylor case, being handed down by what is essentially a foreign court, doesn’t necessarily feel like justice. For both countries, there are still many who have not atoned for their crimes, and many others still who would prefer the path of reconciliation over what many perceive as ambivalent justice.