Q&A: Chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp
The significance of the case against Liberia's Charles Taylor
Last Updated June 29, 2007
By Laura Lynch at The Hague, the Netherlands
Stephen Rapp is the chief prosecutor in the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. (CBC)
Stephen Rapp is the chief prosecutor for the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, a special panel that has been established at The Hague to probe war crimes allegations dating back to the mid-1990s against former Liberian president Charles Taylor. It is a trial that deals with the use of child soldiers and other possible crimes against humanity and is expected to last 12 to 18 months.
Rapp is a former U.S. state prosecutor from Iowa whose previous international experience was as the chief of prosecutions for the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Rwandan genocide. He spoke to the CBC's Laura Lynch.
Lynch: What is the significance of this case?
Rapp: This is an enormously significant case. It involves the prosecution of a chief of state, up for very serious crimes, some of the most incredible crimes committed in the last 10 years. These include mutilation, sexual violence, sexual slavery, the use of child soldiers, murder. Really, the campaign of terror that occurred in Sierra Leone and, according to our indictment, Charles Taylor is responsible to a substantial extent for those crimes and the whole story of indicting him and bringing him to justice is a vindication of the concept that no individual is above the law.
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor. (Schalk van Zuydam/Associated Press)
You have been working on this case for a long time. When Charles Taylor sits down in the dock on Monday morning, what's going to be going through your mind?
Well, you know, every time you deal with these cases, your mind goes back to the situations, the victims, to the crimes that were committed. And you always have to deal with that question: there is a 14-year-old hacking off someone's limb, there is someone burning down a house, there is someone enslaving somebody and treating them brutally and you say 'but who is responsible?'
Is it the 14-year-old? Is it the 17-year-old commander? I mean, how did this happen? Sierra Leone had been a peaceful society, it had been the Athens of Africa. You had no hatred between Muslims and Christians. You didn't have the sort of ethnic or tribal conflict like there was in Rwanda.
Basically this whole war, the hallmark of which was attacks on civilians and incredible brutality, was really visited on this country and, according to our evidence, based upon a plan developed by Charles Taylor and his allies in the [rebel-led] Revolutionary United Front.
Reading your pre-trial brief, you present a case that portrays Taylor as much more than a figurehead. How involved was he?
He was involved. Keep in mind, this battlefield, this situation, was very chaotic. He was committing his resources, he was committing his arms. And he was very insistent in 1998 that they had to take and hold the diamond fields so he had those resources.
Laura Lynch (CBC)
But he wanted to make sure that what he was expending and what he was supplying was actually going to the purpose he intended, which was victory for his brutal allies in the RUF. He was the field marshal essentially of this campaign — that's what our evidence shows. We will be presenting insider witnesses, people who were close to him, who describe him as the person who ran the operation.
And when he was in trouble in Liberia, those same soldiers, that same RUF, fought for him in Liberia and went across the border into Guinea. That was two countries but one force and Charles Taylor was the person responsible.
All the same though, how can he possibly be found guilty of war crimes in Sierra Leone when he never set foot in the country?
Well, you know, today if I called up somebody in Toronto and I said there's some dynamite to blow up a bank and if you use it you need to send me some of the money, you know, I'd be responsible if I provided them with the means to commit the crime.
As we know from organized crime, and these war crimes are in a sense organized crime, it's the person on the top that's really calling the shots. You don't have to be the person that's shooting people, you don't have to be the one chopping off the arms or the legs and raping the women, to be the one that's really the author of the violence.
Our responsibility at the Sierra Leone tribunal is to prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility and according to the evidence that we will present in this case he is the one bearing the greatest responsibility.
Can you describe for me his responsibility in the recruitment of child soldiers?
This was a hallmark of Charles Taylor, his modus operandi, and it was present in the conflict in Liberia, which preceded the conflict in Sierra Leone by about a year and a half.
He used small-boy's units and small-girl's units. And that's a particularly insidious thing because, obviously, it represents an effort to corrupt the youth and really destroy young people. To tear them away from their families and sometimes force them to commit brutal acts against their families, to get them high on drugs not just once but on a constant basis. To play to their desire to be powerful and to be figures out of a video game almost.
The advantage of using small boys and small girls is that you don't need racial hatred, you don't need a real motive for the campaign. People like Charles Taylor had a hard time recruiting adults, there wasn't a grievance that they could really rally around. So instead, they developed a force of young people who became a pliable tool.
How do you prove that this was his orchestration to recruit these child soldiers?
There are a variety of ways. You can look at what he did beforehand and, of course, a lot of this case involves establishing patterns of practice, etc. In proving these cases, sometimes you don't have the documents, you don't have the direct orders. But you have situations where all the world is saying the RUF is employing child soldiers — the news media in 1988 is showing pictures of young soldiers with guns that were taller than they were.
It's our evidence that Charles Taylor is loading them up, providing those arms. He is providing the material, he is encouraging that practice and doing nothing at all to stop it. And for that he is criminally responsible.
But additionally, I think our evidence and the pattern shows that this was in fact part of his plan from the very beginning. He started the concept in Liberia and then he more or less exported it into Sierra Leone, which hadn't had recruitment of child soldiers up until that point.
How much of this fight for Charles Taylor was about getting access to those diamonds?
Well it was an important part of the continuing conflict, [though] this is an interesting question about the original motivation. Clearly, Charles Taylor wanted to take over Liberia. Clearly he wanted a friendly government, clearly he wanted access to [its] resources. And the diamonds in Sierra Leone are very valuable.
But we think it became a major issue as the conflict went on and that's where it is absolutely clear. He needed those diamonds to keep [an army] in the field, and he also needed those diamonds in order to support other things he was doing in Liberia and to support himself.
They were instrumental in the war, [but] they weren't necessarily the main motivation for getting into the conflict.
Roughly how many witnesses are testifying for the prosecution?
We've listed 139 core witnesses. We have backup witnesses in case any of them can't testify. About 62 of them are linkage witnesses, critical witnesses to tie Taylor into what happened in Sierra Leone.
As I understand it, a large number of these witnesses are going to have to have their identity hidden or disguised. Is that correct?
In this tribunal, as in the Rwanda tribunal and the Yugoslavia tribunal, many of the witnesses from the region will testify under an assumed name. Now understand, the accused, Taylor, will know who they are. He will have to be given notice six weeks before their testimony to effectively investigate them, and his lawyer can ask tough, penetrating questions about their own conduct and their own credibility.
But from the public point of view, it's one of the ways we protect these individuals. We try to create a situation where they can go back to their home communities and it not be known that they were a witness, so that allies of the accused won't come after them.
Now of course, that's unrealistic sometimes and so in a lot of these cases we'll have to additionally provide some protective measures for relocation, perhaps even into another country. But to the extent we do that, that will also have to be disclosed because it will be an issue, an argument that perhaps because of relocation they're telling the story rather than because of their desire to tell the truth.
What does that say about the stability in the region then?
Well it's you know, there's always difficulties in trials [like these]. I don't know what the situation is in Montreal with the Rwanda case right now. But there are these situations where people really do feel intimidated if their identities are known and protective measures are put into effect.
But there is no question there are still challenges to stability. Liberia still has a UN peacekeeping force, more than 16,000 soldiers. It went through 25 years of war and instability and so certainly if you talk to the people involved in the UN peacekeeping force things are not in a good position yet.
It's still a volatile situation. And of course this trial is, I think, important, in that it sends a clear signal to people that this kind of tactic is not the way forward. I think this verdict can help stabilize Liberian society and that's only an indirect benefit of it. The main benefit is justice for the people of Sierra Leone.
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