Universal Jurisdiction for Liberian Torture Victims

Published 15th June 2017

Earlier this month, Liberian Agnes Reeves Taylor was arrested by UK Metropolitan Police- War Crimes Unit, and charged with torture committed during the First Liberian Civil War. Due to the existence of universal jurisdiction, suspected perpetrators of such crimes will find no safe haven. This case could be of huge significance for victims and a vital step to clear the cloud of impunity that hovers over the Liberian Civil wars.

51 year old, Agnes Reeves Taylor, a Coventry University lecturer based in London and former wife of convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, was arrested on 1 June. She has been charged with torture allegedly committed between 1989 and 1991 in Liberia by Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Reeves Taylor appeared before a magistrate on 3 June 2017 and denied all charges.

The First Liberian Civil war, which began in 1989 and ended in 1997, resulted in the deaths of approximately 600 000 people as Charles Taylor and other armed insurgents sought to overthrow President Samuel Doe. Whilst all parties to the war committed grave violations, Taylor’s NPFL was notoriously brutal. Taylor’s troops used torture, mass murder, and arbitrary detention to instill fear and to gain ground in the battle for control of Liberia. Very few of their leaders have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Charles Taylor himself is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, not Liberia.

Domestic accountability in Liberia leaves a lot to be desired, however, the use of universal jurisdiction in other countries has provided a measure of hope for the victims.

Universal jurisdiction is premised on the understanding that certain crimes, for example genocide and torture, are deeply harmful to the international community as a whole. Thus, regardless of: where the crime was committed; the nationality of the perpetrator; and who the victims were, should a suspected perpetrator be found on the territory of a nation that has broad universal jurisdiction laws- they can be investigated and prosecuted by that nation’s courts.

The arrest of Reeves Taylor is in line with the UK’s Criminal Justice Act, which includes an element of universal jurisdiction, though not labeled as such. It states that, “ A public official or person acting in an official capacity, whatever his nationality, commits the offence of torture if in the United Kingdom or elsewhere he intentionally inflicts severe pain or suffering on another in the performance or purported performance of his official duties…”

There have been a few others who have been caught by the net of universal jurisdiction. Martina Johnson, a Liberian citizen and former artillery commander of the NPLF was arrested in September 2014 in Belgium. She was one of the first people to be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for her role during the civil war. Former commander of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia, (ULIMO), a group which fought against Taylor’s faction, was also arrested and charged with war crimes in Switzerland in 2014.

The use and understanding of universal jurisdiction varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but it provides great potential for justice and accountability, particularly in the case of the Liberian civil war.

Universal jurisdiction is not without its controversy, as politicians fear its impact and lack of boundaries. In 2001 Belgium sought to prosecute Ariel Sharon for the massacre of civilians in Lebanon in 1982. A few years later in 2003 Belgium attempted to bring George H.W Bush to account for the reckless bombing of Baghdad during the first Gulf War. These two cases inspired the US and NATO to take action to curtail the use of universal jurisdiction. They threatened to remove their NATO base from Brussels, should Belgium fail to limit the reach of their universal jurisdiction laws. Belgium capitulated and amended their laws in 2003.

The UK is no stranger to universal jurisdiction including using it to convict Belarusian Nazi-collaborator Anthony Sawoniuk for his involvement in the persecution of Jews. At the time of his trial Sawoniuk was a British citizen. Faryadi Zardad, an Afghan warlord, living in the UK at the time of his arrest, was also charged and convicted for the commission of torture under UK universal jurisdiction laws.

One need not look far for others suspected perpetrators who continue to evade justice in their own countries, however, universal jurisdiction could significantly change what is hopefully a temporary state of impunity for “crimes that shock the conscience of humanity”.

26 years after the crimes allegedly committed by Reeves Taylor, justice has come calling. Perhaps others suspected perpetrators will also have their day in court should universal jurisdiction be constructively utilised to bring justice for the victims.

** This article appeared in the Star Newspaper on 15 June 2017.

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