International Law

Charles Taylor Goes to Jail in Britain: The Backstory

By John Bellinger
Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 11:55 AM

Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia who was convicted of war crimes in 2012 by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, arrived in Britain yesterday to begin a 50-year prison term in a British jail.  In June 2006, after Taylor was expelled from Nigeria under U.S. pressure and turned over to the SCSL, Tony Blair agreed that Britain would imprison him if he were convicted, after other European countries refused to help.  The Taylor saga was a small example of how the Bush Administration did more to support international justice and tribunals than it received credit for at the time, and how, in contrast, many European countries paid lip service to international justice but did not step up when actually called upon to help.

Here’s the short version of what happened: in March 2006, after years of U.S. pressure, Nigerian President Obasanjo announced that Taylor would be repatriated to Liberia from his exile in Nigeria.   Taylor then promptly disappeared.  However, after senior Bush Administration officials made clear that there would be no Oval Office visit for Obasanjo while Taylor was on the lam, Taylor miraculously reappeared, was detained by Nigerian police, and was transferred to Liberia, where he was turned over to the SCSL, which was then sitting in Freetown.  Then newly-elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, however, was concerned that a trial of Taylor in Liberia could destabilize her new government.  So, it was arranged that the SCSL would try Taylor in the Hague, using the then as-yet unused facilities of the International Criminal Court.   To the surprise of many European governments, who had convinced themselves that the Bush Administration was implacably hostile to the ICC, the Bush Administration supported the use of the ICC for this purpose.  I personally called the ICC President to tell him of our support.   As I told NPR at the time, “We don't have a general allergy to the ICC. We are concerned about the ICC's potential coverage of the United States government. But we see a role for the ICC and international criminal justice in the world.”

But agreeing to allow the SCSL to prosecute Taylor in the Hague was only one piece of the puzzle.   The Dutch Government agreed to host the trial in the Hague but -- understandably -- did not also want to have to detain Taylor if he was convicted.  U.S. and U.N. officials canvassed numerous European countries, including Sweden and Austria, but they all refused, citing the expense and security concerns.   Ironically, the refusal of European governments to assist came at the height of their criticism of the U.S. Government over its lack of support for the ICC.   Finally, after it appeared that the prosecution of Taylor might not go forward if a solution could not be found, Tony Blair volunteered Britain to house Taylor if convicted.   The British Parliament -- in contrast to other European parliaments -- then passed special legislation to allow for Taylor’s imprisonment.

The Bush Administration’s support of ICC facilities for the trial of Charles Taylor was part of a broader effort in its second term to adopt a pragmatic approach towards the ICC, which included agreeing to the U.N. Security Council referral of the Darfur situation to the ICC for investigation in March 2005.  Many European governments, which had blamed the anti-ICC American Servicemembers Protection Act of 2002 and its jingoistic Hague-invasion provision on President Bush (even though it was actually drafted by Republicans in the House and supported by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry in the Senate), failed to recognize the evolution in the U.S. position at the time.  The beginning of the incarceration of Charles Taylor should now serve as a reminder both to European governments of the efforts made by the Bush Administration to support international tribunals and to our own Congress of the important role that international tribunals (however imperfect) can play in the system of international justice.  As I recommended last year, if and when Congress can return to the business of governing, it should review the American Servicemembers Protection Act and consider whether some of its restrictions on U.S. support to the ICC should be modified.