Let's not underestimate the significance of the 50-year sentence passed yesterday on Charles Taylor, the first former head of state since Nuremberg to be convicted of war crimes by an international court.
Never again can a tyrant unleash an orgy of murder, mutilation, torture and rape without the image flitting across his consciousness of the ageing ex-president of Liberia languishing in a British prison cell.
Predictably, yesterday's sentence aroused a chorus of "Yes, buts". Yes, but this is asymmetric justice because no time soon will Russia be brought to book for atrocities in Chechnya, or Israel in the Palestinian occupied territories, or China in Tibet, let alone the US or UK for war crimes in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yes, but this is victor's justice. Yes, but this is a tool for western liberal democracies to lock up political leaders – mostly sub-Saharan African ones – when they fall from grace. Yes, but this verdict may prolong conflicts because monsters like Assad in Syria, Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Bashir in Sudan won't throw in the towel when the prospect of a comfortable retirement in exile has been snatched away from them.
Admitting that international criminal justice is flawed is not the same as dismissing it as worthless. Above all, we must listen to the victims. Yesterday's most poignant image was of a man using the metal claws that have replaced his hands – hacked off by Taylor-backed rebels in Sierra Leone – to raise a tissue to his tear-filled eyes after hearing the verdict. Today spare a thought for Joseph Massalay, the boy interviewed by The Herald's Lucy Adams in Liberia in 2006. He was 10 years old when he was left for dead in a pile of bodies by one of Taylor's militias. Lend an ear to Black Diamond, the woman who took up an AK-47 to defend herself after she was gang-raped by the soldiers who had murdered her parents. As she puts it: "This will send an important message to the world that you can't do terrible things and just get away with it."
They had grown up in a society in which it was the small fry who ended up behind bars while the "big men" murdered and mutilated with impunity. Taylor had used a constant flow of "blood diamonds" to arm the rebels who brought years of bloodshed and misery to the people of Sierra Leone. The message of the international criminal court is that big men can run but they can't hide forever. It cost millions to extract Taylor from Nigeria, where he believed he was immune from justice, and secure his conviction in The Hague but the expense and persistence required were amply justified by yesterday's result. As for the claim that only African dictators land in the dock, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic only cheated justice in Amsterdam by dying in his cell before a verdict could be reached on his four-year reign of terror in the Balkans. The successful prosecution of Taylor will unsettle Ratko Mladic, as well as Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast and Jean-Pierre Bemba of the Democratic Republic of Congo. For those who support the possibility of international justice, it is a relief to see Taylor in his dapper suit sent down after a fair trial, rather than suffer the sordid demise meted out to Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.
Slowly a new principle is taking root, along with the institutions capable of imposing it, such as the special court for Sierra Leone and the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Individual rights carry responsibilities. Sovereignty is limited by the obligation to avoid international crimes.
Philippe Sands, the renowned professor of international law, begs us to be patient. "It took centuries to create the system of English courts," he says. The same can be said of Scottish justice. International courts won't end genocide and torture any more than UK courts prevent crime here but they do make a difference. The men (and it is overwhelmingly men) who command and fund the torturers and mutilators, the murderers and gang rapists can never sleep easy now. International justice may have a long way to go, but it is on its way.
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