The decision handed down by the court in a leafy suburb of The Hague will mark a milestone in an accelerating and sometimes controversial effort to create an international justice system.
Taylor will become the first sitting or former head of state to be judged for conduct in a war that was considered — by still-emerging international standards — so treacherous as to be illegal. Prosecutors allege that he used his power as president of neighboring Liberia to advise and provide resources and weapons to Sierra Leone’s rebels, whose uprising he viewed as similar to the guerrilla movement he had led in his own country.
Some critics say such courts have become an impediment to ridding the world of some unsavory leaders, who cling to power for their own protection. But international justice activists counter that the goal is to make atrocities dangerous for wartime leaders, so that they will think twice before ordering or committing them.
“We have the International Criminal Court, permanent, increasingly powerful, casting a long shadow,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said recently. “There is no going back. In this new age of accountability, those who commit the worst of human crimes will be held responsible.”
As soon as the recent war in Libya wound down, for instance, Moammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam and his intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, were charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) here for their roles in supervising the killing of civilians during the uprising against Gaddafi’s rule. The rebels have refused to hand over Saif al-Islam, however, and Senussi is being held in Mauritania while the government there figures out what to do with him.
Gaddafi also was charged, but he was killed soon after his capture by rebel forces.
The pace of the proceedings in The Hague’s tranquil international courtrooms has been cited as one of the major problems with the half-dozen international courts headquartered here. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for instance, has been grinding away for nearly two decades, at a cost of more than $120 million a year financed mostly by taxpayers from U.N. member countries.
In addition, international justice has pursued only war leaders whose prosecution is politically acceptable, such as despised African warlords or the losing side in the former Yugoslavia. Moreover, the United States has refused to ratify the 1998 treaty founding the ICC, fearing that U.S. troops or officials could get dragged into uncontrollable proceedings by victims of U.S. foreign wars.