A U.N.-backed criminal tribunal added to growing precedent this week when it sentenced Former Liberian President Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. Since 1990, more than 69 former heads of state have been formally prosecuted for crimes against humanity, human rights violations, or economic crimes committed during their administration.1 Recent high-profile cases included former leaders in Europe and Latin America, including Augusto Pinochet, Alberto Fujimori, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein.
One notable difference between Taylor’s case and others is that the Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s 2003 indictment and warrant for his arrest were issued while Taylor was still President of Liberia. Although domestic laws of Liberia and Sierra Leone grant criminal immunity to presidents sitting in office, a unanimous decision by the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court ruled that criminal proceedings could be initiated against the sitting Head of State of Liberia.
But Liberia and Sierra Leone are not alone. According to this year's Global Integrity Report, many countries protect heads of state and government from being prosecuted while they are still in office:
Thus, Taylor's sentence comes as a welcome step in the right direction, namely that heads of state are increasingly less likely to escape criminal prosecution. But there's still plenty of work to be done at the national level to guarantee that the law applies equally to all while being sensitive to local contexts.2
— Carrie Golden and Raymond June
— Image Credit: Kipp Jones
1 Caitlin Dickson, The Atlantic Wire, Mubarak Won't Leave Unless a French Villa Is Waiting, February 3, 2011. http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/02/mubarak-won-t-leave-unless-a-french-villa-is-waiting/17844/
2 See Gerhad Anders' Guest Post for more about local views on the judgment against Taylor in Sierra Leone and Liberia.