Taylor Judgment: a "victory for justice"?

Following the confirmation of the 50 year sentence of Charles Taylor, there is a tone of celebration from a number of human rights organisations. One expression that has struck me as problematic is that of this verdict being a “victory for justice”, as seen for example in this tweet by Human Rights Watch executive director:

On a certain level, I of course understand what he means. This verdict is seen as vindication for some of the victims of the Sierra Leone conflict and in this sense constitutes “justice”. However, I think that the expression is disturbing in what it says on the state of mind of those who use it.

Indeed, technically, if you trust the legal system, a conviction is no more a “victory for justice” than an acquittal would be. It is the system that must be seen as just, irrespective of the particular outcome in a given case. If we do not accept that acquittals are an option, then there is no point in pretending to want a system of international criminal justice, with a strong protection of the rights of the defense. We might as well reintroduce summary executions, which, I’m sure would satisfy some victims just as much.

On the substance, I’m not entirely sure how much of a “victory for justice” it is, when you see the systematic violations of the rights of the defense in international criminal proceedings. The acts that are being prosecuted are the most heinous crimes that affect the “conscience of humanity”, and the highest standards of evidence should be imposed, rather than the lowest ones, as is sometimes the case.

Attachment to these high standards of justice in the respect of the rights of the defense should be the first concern of all people involved in this field, because it is at the heart of the international criminal justice project. Without a fair trial, there cannot be, on the long run, any victory for justice.

5 responses to “Taylor Judgment: a "victory for justice"?

  1. I fully agree with this insightful analysis. To the extent due process is followed, acquittals, in fact, reaffirm the efficacy of judicial systems in both national and international systems. I highly doubt Roth would have deemed a reversal by the court to equally serve the interests of justice. Unfortunately, I fear he shares the same warped and embarrassingly infantile view (shared by many lawyers in the field, especially those in prosecutor offices) that only convictions of the accused serve to advance international criminal justice. I hope Roth is correct – that hopefully the conviction will bring a measure of justice to his victims in Sierra Leone and will set a precedent in future deliberations of the role played by states in crimes committed by forces they support in other countries. The other victory is for the institution itself – the efficacy of hybrid courts – which, in my humble opinion, go a long way toward positively impacting judicial systems (in this case, Sierra Leone's), to heal the scars of war in the country, and most important, to pave the way toward the creation of similar courts. The issue of "justice" in this case deserved far more nuance than a tweet and perhaps therein lies the albatross: our tendency to reduce justice to simplistic soundbites.

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