What Can Taylor Case Tell Us About Our Moral Compass?

Lexington, VA Friday, January 09, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Jan. 9, 2009

Today, in Miami, Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr., son of Charles Taylor, the brutal dictator of Liberia, will be sentenced in federal court, where a jury convicted him in October 2008 of torture and conspiracy. Prosecutors want a punishment of 147 years in prison.

This is a milestone case -- it is the first prosecution under a law designed to prevent torturers from coming to the U.S.

We also have a lot to learn from Chuckie Taylor's trial, in terms of both the importance of international law and our own moral compass when it comes to torture.

Liberia is a small West African country with a painful past. Civil war, only recently quelled, raged for many years. But this was no ordinary civil war. Largely, it was war by the government against the people. The government was led by Charles Taylor, who currently is being prosecuted by an international tribunal in The Hague, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Charles Taylor was abetted in his reign of terror by his son.

CHUCKIE, 31, a/k/a Roy M. Belfast, Jr. and Charles McArthur Emmanuel, was born in Boston and grew up in suburban Orlando. He wanted to be a rapper. But he went to Liberia in 1997 after his father won a national election there. In Liberia, he led a security force. Initially, the force protected Liberia's leaders. But it soon turned into an engine of atrocity and became known as the Demon Forces. Chuckie Taylor was a torturer: From 1999 to 2003 he directed executions and electric shocks. His acolytes severed genitals. They burned victims with molten plastic and scalding water, and shoveled biting ants onto them.

In March 2006, immediately following his father's capture, Chuckie Taylor entered the United States through Miami. He was arrested and charged with passport fraud. He had lied when he previously applied for his U.S. passport. He pleaded guilty to that charge. He was later indicted for torture under a 1994 law that gives U.S. courts the authority to judge acts of torture committed in foreign countries by anyone present in the United States. This law was adopted as part of the U.S.'s ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

Chuckie Taylor's trial was the first held under this law. The U.S. also has adopted similar laws (though not identical in their reach) that allow it to prosecute genocide and recruitment of child soldiers committed abroad. We don't want to become a safe haven for the human rights abusers of the world. These laws play a small part in guarding against that.

So what do we learn from this case?

First, that international law matters. By setting standards about what is acceptable or unacceptable in times of conflict, the law educates and teaches and, in some rare cases, even punishes. Specifically, international law matters to us. Why else would we have these laws in place, care about them, and devote resources to them? Liberia's justice system, despite recent improvements, still is barely functioning.

Law students at Washington and Lee University are involved in helping rebuild the Liberian criminal justice system. But much work remains to be done. So, in the interim, an American court was able to fill a justice gap. For Liberians, this was one of the only times anyone has been convicted anywhere of the grievous human rights abuses committed in their country.

BUT CHUCKIE Taylor's trial also should teach us something more disquieting. That is, when we condemn torture abroad, we should not turn a blind eye to allegations of torture by our own personnel. Nor should we ignore our unrelenting detention of suspects, without trial, at Guantanamo. When we support international law by prosecuting its violations elsewhere, we must remain principled. This means we cannot declare ourselves exempt from international law, or deride it as quaint, or search hard to find loopholes in it for us.

Prosecutors in Miami said we needed to punish Chuckie Taylor severely because the gravity of torture is beyond dispute. The Justice Department's position in this case is that torture constitutes a flagrant and pernicious abuse of power that undermines respect for rule of law. It is difficult to square the Justice Department's tough rhetoric here with its approach to cases that involve policy decisions by our own government in the war on terror.

It is a disgrace that in his defense, Chuckie Taylor pointed fingers at his prosecutors, saying that torture can't be that bad since the United States undertakes it as a matter of policy in the war on terror. He claimed we did some of what he did. The defense didn't work, as a matter of fact and law. But the mere fact that it could be raised should give us pause.

Thankfully, we do not countenance Chuckie Taylors in our midst. But when we prosecute torture committed elsewhere, we also have a duty to seriously investigate our own human rights practices and policies. Otherwise our prosecutions of torture abroad always will be weakened by charges that they are political.

Mark A. Drumbl is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University, and author of "Atrocity, Punishment, and International Law" (2007). Contact him at drumblm@wlu.edu.

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