Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was transferred to prison in the United Kingdom on Tuesday to serve out the remainder of his 50-year sentence. Taylor had been in custody at The Hague in the Netherlands since his 2012 conviction at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Sierra Leone's civil war -- itself an extension of Liberia's civil war -- during his rule from 1997 to 2003. While the transfer symbolically concludes a decadelong effort to bring Taylor to justice, the unintended consequences of the prosecution have been felt far and wide and are likely to complicate attempts to resolve violent conflicts in the future.
The desire for justice is understandable. Both West African conflicts were archetypically Hobbesian in nature. Diamonds mined from shallow alluvial deposits financed the just-as-easy acquisition of small arms, fueling the lusty imperial ambitions of Taylor and his allies (including former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi). Life in wartime Liberia was nasty, brutal and short, and images of limbless war survivors and of child soldiers mutilating their elders abound. Since Taylor fell, Liberia has largely been governed adequately by current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and an array of peacekeeping forces and modest foreign investment have helped stabilize the country and allow normalcy to return.
However, the International Criminal Court played no part in resolving the Liberian and Sierra Leonean wars (Taylor was pushed out of power by rival militias attacking from Guinea and Sierra Leone and, ultimately, by a West African peacekeeping mission), and the significance gained by the court in recent years has largely been inadvertent and, at times, counterproductive. Indeed, in the corridors of power in Africa and beyond, the court is now seen at the very least as a political liability -- and even an obstacle to conflict resolution.
The prosecution of Taylor created incentives for leaders in conflict zones elsewhere to refuse mediated resolutions. In 2003, Taylor agreed to resign from the presidency in exchange for safe exile in Nigeria. But the deal was reneged upon, and Taylor was arrested in 2006. Fearing a fate similar to Taylor's, beleaguered leaders have become more likely to cling to power until forcibly removed.
The International Criminal Court has also effectively lowered the bar in its selection of cases to prosecute. Instead of attempting to prosecute leaders currently orchestrating mass conflicts, the court has focused more on losers of political conflicts -- and only long after their alleged crimes occurred. Furthermore, African leaders believe that the court focuses an inordinate amount of attention on them. To its detractors, the court has lost legitimacy by choosing to prosecute relatively defenseless officials who were involved in relatively minor events.
As a result, leaders from Kenya -- which is currently calling for an Africa-wide withdrawal from the court -- to Sudan to Zimbabwe have appeared more determined to hold onto office (and the executive immunity privileges it affords), at least in part to prevent what happened to Taylor from happening to them. For example, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's government will not yield to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and risk exposing itself to a prosecution for uncertain crimes by the International Criminal Court.
In Libya, Gadhafi likely kept fighting until he was killed in part because he lacked a secure alternative. Ousted Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, meanwhile, argues that he was only defending his legitimate government against an armed rebellion during Ivory Coast's civil war in the 2000s and through to national elections in 2010. Regardless, Gbagbo would not have ended up at The Hague if French-backed Ivorian rebels had not captured him.
Most concerning today is the conflict in Syria, where President Bashar al Assad has refused all exile offers and instead continues to fight, knowing a safe exit immune from prosecution cannot be guaranteed. For this reason, the International Criminal Court, like many international organizations, will remain part of the institutional fabric of the international community but its relevance and ability to contribute to conflict resolutions may continue to wane.