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We must put the power of international law to work in Ukraine

Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Russian Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 12, 2022.

As the world contemplates accountability for Vladimir Putin’s international crimes and the Russian Federation’s atrocities against the citizens of Ukraine, we should remember that just 20 years ago, the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) showed the world the true power of the rule of law.  

On March 10, 2003, the Office of the Prosecutor of the SCSL launched what may be the most successful international arrest operation in history. On that day, over a period of 55 minutes, investigators — assisted by the Sierra Leonean National Police, the UN Peacekeeping Force, and officers from other nations — arrested most of those who bore the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone’s civil war. All of them would never see the light of a free day again. Tried openly and fairly before the people of Sierra Leone, they were all found guilty of major international crimes. Most of them remain in prison to this day.

The conflict in Sierra Leone began in 1991 and wasn’t declared officially over until January 2002. An estimated 50,000 people died, and the violence affected hundreds of thousands of others, displacing as many as 2 million.

Among those not arrested on March 10, but indicted with the rest of the perpetrators on March 3, 2003, was President Charles Taylor of Liberia. The chief prosecutor decided that attempting to arrest Taylor at that moment would cause too much insecurity in the region. Instead, Taylor would face his indictment in June of that year, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was the first sitting head of state in the modern era to be indicted and tried for violations of international law. Ultimately stripped of his titles and humbled before the law, Taylor today sits in a maximum security prison in the United Kingdom, serving a 50-year sentence for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This moment 20 years ago resonates loudly today around the world. The clarion bell of justice rings for action in another part of the world — Ukraine — where Russia’s war since Feb. 24, 2022, has led to crimes of aggression against civilians, as well as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide. The similarity of these two moments in history should give the international community some hope and assurance looking forward: The world came together once before, to hold Taylor and his henchmen accountable for atrocities in West Africa, and it certainly can do so again in Ukraine. 

The reason for the incredible success of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone was that it was a joint effort by the United Nations, its member states and Sierra Leone, to prosecute those who bore the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in that destroyed part of the world. The mandate was simple and straightforward, with strong political support: an experienced prosecutor’s office had a 10-phase strategic plan that considered the legal, practical, political, diplomatic and cultural aspects of holding Taylor and the leadership of three warring factions accountable. 

Put simply, the SCSL knew what it was doing, why it was in West Africa, who to prosecute and why. Properly led and managed, the court akin to “The Little Engine That Could” was able to show the world the true power of the law in a lawless region.

This model also could successfully hold Putin and his political and military leaders accountable for the ultimate crime of aggression. A proposed UN Special Tribunal for Ukraine on the Crime of Aggression, working in coordination with the International Criminal Court — which is already investigating Russia’s crimes in Ukraine — could very well achieve justice and accountability over the next few years. 

So, let’s move forward, united, with the knowledge of the power of the rule of law in the international community. There really is no better pathway to peace and international security in 2023.

David M. Crane is founder of the Global Accountability Network. He was the founding chief prosecutor of the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone, who investigated, indicted and tried former president Charles Taylor for international crimes.

Tags Charles Taylor Charles Taylor Russian war crimes Ukraine genocide UN Special Court for Sierra Leone Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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