Former warlord-turned Liberian president Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison on Wednesday last week by an international criminal court near the Hague. In April, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Taylor guilty for arming and supplying rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone during the country’s tragic civil war. The UN-backed international tribunal charged Taylor with 11 counts of war crimes in supporting and ordering the rebel group that brutally murdered and mutilated thousands during the conflict. Taylor was guilty of “aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history,” said the judge presiding over the sentencing.
The 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone led to the loss of more than 50,000 lives, with thousands displaced and a shattered infrastructure. The complex and brutal conflict was rooted in years of misrule and fueled by diamond wealth. Children and teenagers were forced to join the war as child soldiers and subjected to psychological damage. While the conflict has ended about 10 years ago, the country still has a long way to go towards recovery.
The cost to bring one man to prison for the crimes committed during the war has come at a huge price as nearly $250 million was spent on the trial proceedings over the last five years. Taylor himself received $100,000 per month for legal assistance during the trial. This is a stark contrast to the less than $200 given to those amputated by the rebels he supported. Sierra Leone’s entire budget on its domestic justice system is roughly $13 million per year. Clearly the disparities and absurdity in this are glaringly obvious.
While it’s understandable that justice can be an abstract concept, one that’s not easily measured or calculated, it questionable if justice was really served in this case. The amount of time and money spent on Taylor’s sentence in order to bring some measure of “justice” came at the expense of fair reparations for the victims. Instead of providing much-needed resources towards the poor, the international community was more concerned with Taylor’s trial and the end result. And while the trial was an important milestone in the fight against impunity for war criminals, it should not have cost so much or taken so long. More time and money spent should have been spent towards helping the victims of the war, investing in infrastructure and directing rebuilding the country. Justice should not come at such a high price.
Today, Sierra Leone is at peace but is among the world’s poorest countries according to the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI). Poverty intensified after the war and continues to be widespread, as income distribution has grown. Sierra Leone’s economy has gradually recovered although GDP per capita is ranked as one of the lowest in the world. The most disadvantaged in Sierra Leone are those who were refugees and internally displaced during the war, former child soldiers, sexually abused young women, and single mothers. Nearly half of the working age population partakes in subsistence agriculture as unemployment continues to remain high. The poor and the victims of the war are still in need of desperate help.
Sierra Leone continues to rely on large amounts of foreign assistance, with the largest donations come from the United Kingdom and the European Union. Much of the country’s healthcare relies on foreign assistance as well as a large percentage of the population deal with the emotional and physical trauma caused by the war.
The victims of the conflict have welcomed the sentencing, some considering it a fresh start for the country to move on. But the question still remains as to why justice had to come at such a high price. War criminals are not worthy of the huge amount of time, money and resources spent to bring them to justice. The victims are the ones who deserve it much more.