Are war crimes trials worth the price?

Are war crimes trials worth the price?

Justin Sandefur has a thought-provoking post on the Center for Global Development’s blog running some numbers on the recent war crimes conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, which took approximately 9 years and $250 million:

The entire budget for Sierra Leone’s domestic justice sector is roughly $13 million per year, including the Sierra Leone Police, the Prisons Department, all levels of the court system, and the various human rights and legal services commissions.  There are just 12 magistrates for the whole country outside of Freetown, and they hear between 4,000 to 5,000 criminal cases per year. The lack of judges, lawyers, and police investigators –even the lack of a few cents in cell phone credit to contact witnesses that might implicate or exonerate a defendant –is a serious obstacle to a functional justice system.

In contrast, a quick tally using the Special Court’s annual budget reports reveal costs of approximately $175 million for the prosecutions of 13 other defendants in Freetown, in addition to the hefty bill for Taylor’s trial in the Hague. And the Special Court boasted 11 judges and hundreds of staff members for its 14 cases spread over the past nine years.  Add on the testimony of Naomi Campbell, and it appears international war crimes have become a red-carpet affair.

The quick-math takeaway here is that money spend on the trial of one man could have funded Sierra Leone’s entire justice system for nearly 20 years. 

Sandefur proposes that a with a trial for Taylor "less expensive venue and not-so-high-priced defense attorneys" could have reached the conclusion while maintaining the same standards of fairness. In fairness, these trials generally serve not just to determine the guilt of the defendant — there’s often not all that much question of that — but as international truth commissions for the conflict they adress as well as an opportunity to establish precedent in international law. It’s complicated for a reason, but it also seems like a middle ground could be found that seems less like an overpriced circus and less remote from the people affected.

In other news, Clare MacDougall blogs an essay by Taylor’s defense attorney Courtenay Griffiths on the International Criminal Court. (Taylor was tried not by the ICC but by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.) Griffiths notes that every indictment handed down by the ICC has been against an African and that "the guardians of “international justice” have yet to find a single crime committed by a great white northern power against people of colour." That may not be a fair critique, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a persuasive one.

The court’s new Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, from Gambia, recently addressed the critique that the ICC is a court set up by westerners to prosecute Africans: 

"With due respect, what offends me most when I hear criticisms about the so-called African bias is how quick we are to focus on the words and propaganda of a few powerful, influential individuals and to forget about the millions of anonymous people that suffer from these crimes … because all the victims are African victims.

"Indeed, the greatest affront to victims of these brutal and unimaginable crimes … women and young girls raped, families brutalised, robbed of everything, entire communities terrorised and shattered … is to see those powerful individuals responsible for their sufferings trying to portray themselves as the victims of a pro-western, anti-African court."

It’s also possible that the pomp and remoteness of these trials, as noted by Sandefur, are contributing to the perceptions that Bensouda is trying to fight.