Interview With John Hirsch, Former US Ambassador to Sierra Leone, on Charles Taylor

“The conviction of Charles Taylor is an enormously important event in terms of bringing a very senior level person finally to account,” says John Hirsch, former US Ambassador to Sierra Leone and IPI Senior Adviser. “I mean Charles Taylor probably could never have imagined a decade ago that he would ever be, first of all, deposed, secondly, arrested, and thirdly, convicted…. I think this is definitely a kind of warning sign to dictators not only in Africa but elsewhere, that there is no such thing anymore as impunity.”

Ambassador Hirsch, who lived in Sierra Leone from 1995-1998, outlines the origins of the conflict that embroiled the country and discusses the possibilities for redress, and what can be learned. “What I remember about that period was that it was very, very hard to get the attention of the international community,” he said.

The interview was conducted by Till Papenfuss, IPI Policy Analyst.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Till Papenfuss (TP): John, thanks a lot for taking the time to speak with us here on the Global Observatory today, a significant moment in the history of Sierra Leone with the conviction of Charles Taylor just yesterday. You served as the US Ambassador and lived in Sierra Leone from 1995-1998. Can you share with us some of your memories from that time, and remind us of the origins of the conflict in Sierra Leone and the special challenges it posed for the international community.

John Hirsch (JH): This is historic day for the people of Sierra Leone. There was an eleven-year war in Sierra Leone, which started in 1991 from Liberia and involved a collaboration between the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which was headed by Charles Taylor, and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone and which led in 1992 to the overthrow of the Momo government, the installation of what was called the National Provisional Revolutionary Council (NPRC) which was a government led by Valentine Strasser and a number of other junior officers.

During those years, and even before I arrived, and while I was there, this war primarily took the form of a tax on people in remote villages who were dispossessed of their homes, many were killed, many were mutilated. This was all an effort to persuade people in the country that the NPRC government could not give them security and to create an opportunity for the RUF to come to power. This was all abetted by Charles Taylor’s NPFL. There was an arms-for-diamonds trade that was going on throughout these years. So many arms arrived from Liberia and many diamonds were taken out in return.

When I was the ambassador, when I arrived, there had been a decision taken to hold elections in 1996, in February and March of 1996. And in an effort to dissuade people from voting, the RUF carried out a campaign of mutilations, cutting off hands, arms, even of little children, legs, to dissuade people they would no longer have a hand with which to vote on a ballot, or they would not have the legs with which to walk to a voting booth. And this was clearly involving the NPFL and the RUF together.

What I remember about that period was that it was very, very hard to get the attention of the international community. This was seen as a kind of second-echelon conflict that was much smaller than the events in Somalia and Rwanda. International attention was not focused on this. So it took many years for the UN to get organized, and it took many years for a UN peacekeeping force to deploy. There first was an ECOWAS/ECOMOG deployment while I was there, and it took a long time for a judicial process to be established. It only got started in 1999 after I had stepped down. So we are talking about a decade of suffering by the people of Sierra Leone and the conviction yesterday of Charles Taylor was a long time given the context that I have just described to you.

TP: So indeed, finally, yesterday, on Thursday, April 26, 2012, the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, as you already pointed out, for his responsibility for the brutal civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002. He was convicted for mass murder, rape, sexual slavery, enlisting child soldiers, and for the infamous mutilation of victims’ limbs. Ten years after the end of the civil war, the verdict comes at a highly symbolic time, what is the significance of Taylor’s conviction in your view?

JH:  First of all, as has been noted in the media, this is the first head of state to be convicted by the Special Court, or by any court as a matter of fact, in the post-Cold War era. Secondly, in my mind, this is the first conviction at a high level of those responsible for these atrocities. Foday Sankoh died in prison before the trial was completed by the Special Court. Muammar Qaddafi, who was never indicted by anybody, however, was heavily complicit in all of this because Taylor and Sankoh met in Libya. They both had support from Libya. Qaddafi was involved in destabilizing Liberia and Sierra Leone. He is dead as well. So, therefore, the conviction of Charles Taylor is an enormously important event in terms of bringing a very senior level person finally to account.

The other point I would like to make to you Till is that while this conviction relates to Taylor’s role in Sierra Leone, he also is heavily responsible for the mass murders and atrocities that were committed in Liberia over more than a decade from the overthrow of Tolbert by Samuel Doe in 1980, the civil war that ensued there among the different Liberian factions, and the brutal role that he played in Liberia even after becoming president of that country. I refer you, among others, to Helene Cooper’s article in this morning’s New York Times,  where she gives a graphic account of the atrocities perpetrated on her sister and her sister’s relatives during those years in Monrovia and elsewhere in Liberia. So even if this trial has to do with his responsibilities for the atrocities in Sierra Leone, we should definitely remember his role in the massive atrocities that took place in Liberia.

TP: John, I wanted to ask you, the conviction of Charles Taylor took place on the premises of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague–holding the trial and keeping Charles Taylor in detention in Freetown was deemed too big a security risk for fragile Sierra Leone. Do you share the assessment of the security risks a continued presence of Taylor in Sierra Leone would have caused? Do you think conviction in The Hague will be as impactful as it would have been or could have been, had the trial been conducted in Freetown?

JH: Well, I am reluctant to second-guess the decision of the Tribunal in this case, and certainly there were lots of sensitivities about trying Charles Taylor in Freetown. I do think there is a certain distance when the trial takes place at such a huge remove–so not everybody was able to follow this over the several years that the trial has taken place. That said, there certainly is major attention to this outcome in Freetown today and yesterday, and as the appeals process moves forward.

As regards the impact, I think the big challenge for the international community is to give the people of Sierra Leone redress. And this involves not only the conviction of Charles Taylor, but helping the country and particularly those that were disabled, maimed, harmed, to get their lives organized together. In other words, to provide, for example, prosthetic devices for those who have lost their limbs, to give material assistance to them and their families to get their lives going again, and, more broadly, to rebuild the state and its institutions so that this kind of war, this kind of conflict does not happen again.

So I don’t think the conviction in and of itself constitutes redress, I think many more things need to happen. The same applies in the former Yugoslavia or in Rwanda. These tribunals are important, but I think they are only a piece of what needs to be done to bring some measure, however limited, of closure to the victims of these crimes and atrocities.

TP: Finally, John, you have already pointed out – rightly so – that Charles Taylor has just become the first head of state to be convicted by an international criminal tribunal since the World War II. And we have already looked a little bit at some of the impacts this conviction may have had in Sierra Leone or will have going forward. Now I want to ask you what will the effects of this verdict be on Africa more generally? Do you believe the Taylor verdict might have a deterrent effect on other leaders in Africa and maybe beyond?

JH: I think this is very significant. As you know, there is a pending indictment by the ICC against Omar al-Bashir, the serving President of Sudan. And just recently the Kenyan government has established a commission, and even though President Bashir was recently in Kenya, it has been indicated that if were to go there again he might well be arrested in terms of fulfilling the indictment. And I think that is in part a response to what has just happened. There are others like Hissene Habre and so on who are still pending some kind of judicial outcome.

So I think this is definitely a kind of warning sign to dictators not only in Africa but elsewhere, that there is no such thing anymore as impunity. I mean, Charles Taylor probably could never have imagined a decade ago that he would ever be, first of all, deposed; secondly, arrested; and thirdly, convicted. I met him once with a group of diplomats shortly after he became president, and he was swaggering and very self confident, very defiant, and so on. And this is an incredible message, I think, to the various leaders of Africa, and particularly to dictators, that there is no such thing as a guarantee that you are going to die safely in bed.

TP: John, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

JH: Till, thank you very much.

Related Reading:
“The Fate of Dictators” by John Hirsch