Stretching the Long Arm of the Law

This week I have shared the common fate of most citizens summoned to jury duty, milling about in the holding pen for prospective jurors without ever making it into a jury box. It's a long way from the county court house in Trenton to the international tribunals in The Hague, but my mind keeps drifting from the quotidian unfolding of justice for murder or assault in nearby courtrooms to the precedent-setting accounting for large-scale murder and mayhem that's been rendered in those distant tribunals in recent days.

Last week in The Hague, the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity -- murder, rape, inhumane violence, child conscription, and enslavement. Taylor's ferocious militiamen had terrorized Liberians into electing him president so the bloodletting might end.

But the tribunal did not nail Taylor for the crimes his rebel troops committed in a seven-year civil war that took 200,000 Liberians' lives. Rather, he has been convicted for actively assisting the even more reprehensible "Revolutionary United Front" militia in next-door Sierra Leone, whose rampages devastated that country for a decade.

The reason? The exceptionally repellant violence of the RUF militiamen in Sierra Leone -- routinely chopping off the hands or feet of civilians they did not bother to kill -- finally provoked international intervention and creation of a U.N.-affiliated tribunal to try the perpetrators. The United Nations did not create a similar special court for Liberia, and Liberia's own fragile court system does not dare take on Taylor's crimes at home.

So Taylor last week made history as the world's first one-time head of state to be convicted of atrocity crimes by a U.N.-sponsored tribunal. (Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic might have claimed the historical honor, but died before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal could deliver its verdict.) And the atrocities were committed by forces he did not command.

Although Taylor helped launch the RUF as a complement to his own insurrection in Liberia, he did not claim operational control over RUF forces, who had their own notorious leader in Foday Sankoh. Their alliance was sealed by Sankoh's diversion of Sierra Leone diamonds to Taylor for the purchase of RUF weaponry -- which Hollywood brought to the attention of otherwise clueless Western publics through Leonardo DiCaprio's starring role in Blood Diamond (2006).

Sankoh died in prison before trial; the tribunal convicted eight of his senior RUF lieutenants of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and they are now serving lengthy sentences in a prison in Rwanda. But in convicting Taylor last week as well, the tribunal has found the outside sponsor criminally responsible for aiding and abetting the war crimes of his clients and allies.

The verdict is pregnant with implications for other government leaders who choose to arm and equip armed groups abroad. Certainly anyone aiding insurgent groups that resort to mass atrocities is now on notice of potential culpability. Perhaps even shipping arms to another government's atrocity-stained security forces may be fair game for international criminal scrutiny as well.

The Taylor verdict thus sets a significant precedent on which the new International Criminal Court (ICC) can build. The Sierra Leone tribunal that convicted him is one of several special courts established under U.N. Security Council resolutions to provide justice and accountability in specific conflicts where war crimes and atrocities seemed particularly egregious, including Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These tribunals' legacy has shaped the scope and workings of the permanent ICC created under the 1998 Rome Statute to prevent and punish genocide and other mass-atrocity crimes.

Just six weeks ago the ICC prosecutor secured the court's first conviction, of Thomas Lubanga for the forced conscription of child soldiers into his rebel militia and their use in hostilities and atrocities in the Congo's Ituri region. Two other trials are currently underway, and seven more are scheduled to open soon.

Eight ICC indictees remain fugitives, including the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. If apprehended, Bashir stands a good chance to become the first head of state the ICC convicts of masterminding mass-atrocity crimes. (Rebels last fall disposed extrajudicially of the only other head of state indicted by the ICC prosecutor, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.) The court has active investigations and indictments underway in seven countries in Africa, and is conducting a preliminary examination of complaints of mass atrocity crimes in eight other countries spanning four continents.

During the Obama years the United States has been an enthusiastic supporter of the investigations of the International Criminal Court. The court remains, however, an obsessive bête noire on the far right, even if the military's initial obdurate opposition has subsided as the court has proved itself. In his riveting new memoir, All the Missing Souls, former war-crimes ambassador David Scheffer has detailed the paralysis inside the Clinton administration as the Rome treaty was being negotiated, citing the president's failure to overrule Pentagon paranoia and support the treaty taking shape there.

Clinton last-minute signature on the treaty has been shadowed by a formal letter George Bush sent to the United Nations disavowing any intention to become a state party. But Bush himself blinked when the Europeans pressed the Security Council to refer the atrocities in Darfur to the ICC. The great mystery today is why President Obama, a genuine legal scholar, has not simply revoked the Bush letter.

Here in the juror holding room of my county court house, we have all been treated to juror-preparation videos extolling America's rule of law. It seems only natural that the international community should crank up judicial machinery to enforce the rule of law against humanity's most heinous crimes in places where no working national court system can provide justice. Let's just get on with it.