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When Things Fall Apart: Making Those Responsible Pay
Alex Steffen, 1 Dec 03

General Charles Taylor has a lot to answer for. During his insurgency, his presidency of Liberia, and the civil war which followed, somewhere between 150,000 and 210,000 Liberians were murdered, tens of thousands were raped or mutilated, and Liberia went from being one of the bright spots in the developing world to perhaps the poorest, most decimated country on the planet: a place where hunger and disease are still killing, clean water and electricty are no longer available, and schools, hospitals, housing and roads have been utterly destroyed. In the words of one UN official, it'll take two decades for Liberians to get back to where they were in 1988, and the psychological scars may never heal.

Taylor bears much of the responsibility, having unleashed his army - drugged-out child-soldiers in wedding gowns, combat boots and voodoo regalia - on his own people. His era was marked by the most extreme violence imaginable, including mass rape, ethnic cleansing, ritual killings and cannibalism. He is, by pretty much every account, guilty of crimes against humanity.

He is, unfortunately, not alone. This last century was putrid with dictators, strongmen, criminal bosses and tribal leaders who went far beyond any norms of human behavior - even human behavior during times of war - and ordered the grossest attrocities.

How do you stop them? Certainly, the global community needs to be more responsive. Peacekeeping is noble, but proactive and early intervention - which is, militarily, entirely possible - would save millions from blighted futures and death.

There is, however, another tool: universal jurisdiction. UJ means making certain heinous crimes matters of universal law, subject to prosecution in any duly constituted court in the world. The critics of UJ - an unsavory lot - have raised a number of bogus objections, but the theory is solid: if no country is safe, if no bank account is sacrosanct, if no amount of murder will cover their tracks, dictators (and their cronies) are faced with a new dilemma, since they will be held responsible for their actions. There will be no escape, no comfortable retirement. It may not save us from the crazies, but it will weaken their rule and make them think twice - for them, somewhere, always, the gavel will be hanging in mid-air.

Sadly, even with a $2 million dollar bounty on his head, Charles Taylor may never come to trial. Meanwhile, Liberia begins the slow and painful process of recovery. The bluehats have arrived. Refugee camps are up and running. Food and medical aid are being flown in. Even the boy soldiers are finding their ways home. But the Liberians will suffer for decades, while Charles Taylor walks free.

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