This article earlier appeared on the Open Society Foundations blog.
Today’s groundbreaking judgment in the case of the former Liberian president Charles Taylor represents a milestone for both international justice and gender justice. The former president of Liberia was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual slavery. He was also convicted of the charge of enabling “outrages upon personal dignity”, arising from incidents in which women and girls were forced to undress in public and then raped and sexually abused, “sometimes in full view of the public, and in full view of family members”. In the conviction for terrorism too, the judges found that the raping of women and girls in public was part of the campaign of the campaign aimed at terrorizing the civilian population.
This verdict represents the first time that an international court has convicted a former head of state of responsibility for various forms of sexual violence. Taylor was found to have aided and abetted in the commission of the crimes by providing logistical, financial, technical, medical, and other forms of support to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and other rebel groups, providing practical assistance, encouragement and moral support. He substantially contributed to the crimes by supplying arms and ammunition, military personnel, operational support, and other forms of assistance.
The full judgment will be available at a later date, but it is clear from the verdict and the summary of the judgment that the trial judges recognized that rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence were used as a strategic weapon of warfare, intended to harm not only the direct victims, but their families and whole communities. The crimes were widespread and systematic, committed as part of a strategic campaign to impact the conflict by terrorizing, demoralizing, and destroying the affected civilian populations through sexual violence.
There have now been many previous judgments in international war crimes tribunals in which the accused were found guilty of rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence. But virtually all were when the accused physically perpetrated the rape or was present, encouraging, ordering, or ignoring the crimes. The Taylor verdict represents a welcome and long overdue recognition that civilian or military leaders who are far from the battlefield but who support and encourage sexual violence, or make no attempt to prevent or punish it, can be held responsible for sex crimes.
Leaders have frequently been held accountable for murder, pillage, torture, and countless other crimes committed by others, but courts have shown great reluctance to hold them responsible for sex crimes, treating them as a mere inevitable by-product of armed conflict, not a powerful weapon of war.
The Taylor judgment is a major victory for gender justice worldwide. Notably, two of the three trial chamber judges were women with experience of presiding over trials involving gender justice crimes.
Kelly Askin is a Senior Legal Officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative.