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Interview : Verdict Against Taylor Is Victory For International Justice – Barrister Abeng 

Interviewed By Joe Dinga Pefok — The Acting President of the Cameroon branch of the Coalition of the International Criminal Court, CICC-Cameroon, Barrister Roland Abeng, has said that, no matter how one looks at it, the guilty verdict that was passed by a UN backed court on April 26, 2012, against the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone, was a victory for international justice.

Abeng, who is also the Vice Chair of the African Chapter of the American Bar Association, ABA, granted this interview to The Post from New York, shortly after the court delivered the verdict. He was in the United States for the Spring Meeting of the ABA.

In the interview, Barrister Abeng also talked elaborately on the work of the International Criminal Court, ICC, in Africa, and strongly rejected growing views being expressed in Africa that the ICC is targeting African leaders and the continent. Barrister Abeng also attributes the persistent failure by Cameroon to ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC to the lack of political will. Read on

The Post: On April 26, 2012, the ICC ruled that the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, was guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone, in the 1990s. What is your reaction?

Barrister Abeng: Yes, the UN backed court holds that Taylor was guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity – murder, rape and terrorism- during the civil war in Sierra Leone, in the 90s. The court holds that Taylor was criminally responsible for supporting the Revolutionary United Front, RUF, during the civil war.

Is there any lesson you think should be learned from this?

To me, the verdict is a victory for international justice, no matter how one tries to look at it. The judgement has also sent a strong message to African leaders, as well as to rebel leaders, namely, that there is criminal responsibility for abetting crimes.

This means that a leader does not only need to actively participate in committing a grievous crime against humanity, to be held responsible. Rather, if one has the authority to act to stop a grievous crime from being committed, and he does not act, that, itself, constitutes a serious crime.

Taylor, for example, was not the one commanding the RUF hoodlums to massacre people, to cut off people’s limps and so on. But, he knew these atrocities were happening. He was in a position to get RUF to stop the heinous acts. He did not. Rather, he silently allowed the grievous crimes to be committed. So, the court has found him guilty of abetting the crimes. 

But Taylor’s lawyers and supporters are claiming that his trial was politically motivated. What’s your take on that?

They are instead those trying to give a political notion to the trial and the verdict. I am not surprised anyway, for that has always been the case with some Africans. We have all kinds of atrocities in Africa. We have all types of impunities in Africa.

When a grievous atrocity is committed in Africa, and there is no rapid response by the international community, we complain that the international community does not care. But, then, when it comes to bringing about justice, we turn around to claim that it is politics. This is as a result of manipulation by some people who want to perpetuate impunity.

An increasing number of Africans are advocating that those who commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in Africa, should be put on trial on the continent rather than being taken away to be tried by international courts… 

Good. But how prepared are African leaders or Africa, to do this. The former President of Chad, Hisene Habre, for example, was accused of crimes against humanity. He was supposed to have been put on trial long ago but he is freely living in Senegal.

The Chadian Government and the victims have been complaining for years. Now, can all those people shouting that Africans should not be taken to international courts, justify why the former Chadian leader has not been put on trial in Africa, up till date? Despite all the efforts by the international community, the African Union has, so far, been either unable or unwilling to set up a special court for his trial. Now, what about the victims of his atrocities?

Till date, they have not seen justice done. The Chadian matter aside, how can we also justify the fact that several judgements of the International Court for People’s Rights in the Gambia have not been executed till date?

In fact, with the situation in Africa, it is certain that the ICC and other international courts will be around for a long time to come. The courts are merely doing their jobs. It should be noted that ICC, for example, is a complementary jurisdiction. If we, Africans, want to stop the international courts from intervening in Africa, then, we should give a credible alternative by creating competent, transparent and credible courts, to handle cases of crimes against humanity and war crimes. 

Which are those cases of alleged crimes against humanity or war crimes committed in African countries that have been taken up by the ICC so far?

There is the case of DR Congo, where the ICC opened investigations in 2004. Arrest warrants were issued for war crimes and crimes against humanity, against five warlords – Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, Germain Katanga, Matthieu Nguidjolo Chui, Bosco Ntaganda, and Callixte Mbarushimana.

On March 14, 2012, Trial Chamber 1 delivered a guilty verdict against Lubanga, for the war crime of conscripting and enlisting child soldiers in DR Congo from 2002-2003. It is interesting to note that this was the ICC’s first ever judgement. The court will hand down Lubanga’s imprisonment sentence in the coming months. However, Lubanga’s defence has a right to appeal.

Meanwhile, the other African countries with matters at the ICC include Uganda, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Sudan (Darfur), Libya and Kenya. But it should be noted that all those persons either still under investigation by the ICC or those who are standing trial at the ICC, benefit from the presumption of innocence.

Cameroonians appear to be interested with the case of former Ivorian leader, Laurent Koudou Gbagbo, who is currently being detained by the ICC at The Hague. 

As for Ivory Coast’s situation, it was the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC, who used his ‘propriu motu’ powers to initiate an investigation. However, on October 3, 2011, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber, PTC 111, authorised the Chief Prosecutor to open an investigation into the war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed in the Ivory Coast following the Presidential election of November 28, 2010.

Meanwhile, on November 3, 2011, the Prosecutor submitted to the PTC 111, additional information available to him on potentially relevant crimes committed between 2002 and 2010 in the Ivory Coast. On November 30, 2011, the former President of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, was transferred to the ICC, following the issuance of an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity, allegedly committed since November 28, 2010. Then, on December 5, 2011, Gbagbo made his initial appearance and PTC 111 set the date of confirmation of charges hearing for June 18, 2012.

It is interesting to note that on February 22, 2012, ICC judges expanded the scope of the investigation in the Ivory Cost, to also cover the 2002-2010 period. This means that the activities of other personalities in the Ivory Coast like Guillaume Sorro who led the rebellion in the North, will also be investigated by the ICC. So, it can be seen that Gbagbo’s supporters who had hastily claimed that he was the target of ICC’s intervention in the Ivory Coast were wrong. 

Nonetheless, an increasing number of Africans continues to insist that the ICC is targeting African leaders in particular and Africans as whole. Proof, they claim, is the fact that a majority of the cases at the ICC involve Africans.

This argument, in reality, does not hold water. Now, let us look at the facts. A majority of the matters at the ICC involving countries in Africa were brought to the court by the countries themselves. These countries (Governments) invited the ICC to come and investigate the reports or complaints. That was how ICC got involved in DR Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic, and so on. In fact there are only three cases in Africa, where the countries were not those that invited the ICC. These are Sudan, Libya and the Ivory Coast.

Even then, as for Sudan and Libya, it was the UN Security Council that invited the ICC to investigate reports of crimes against humanity and war crimes in those countries. So, where does the ICC come in to blame? We, Africans, take complaints to the ICC or invite the ICC to intervene in our countries, and then turn around to say that ICC is targeting Africa. We are not being honest, indeed.

How many African countries are members of the ICC?

There are a total of 32 African countries that have ratified the Rome Statute. It should be noted that ICC was created in 1998, and that the first African country to ratify the treaty, and thus become a member of the ICC, was Senegal in 1999.

What about Cameroon? 

It is, really, unfortunate that Cameroon has so far not ratified the Rome Statute, despite all the efforts we have made to encourage the country to do so. Ironically, Cameroon was one of the countries that played an active part in creating the ICC.

Some eminent Cameroonian jurists, like Prof Maurice Kamto, played an active role in the drafting of the Rome Statute. Come to think of it, in the entire CEMAC Zone, only Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea have not yet ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Two years ago, the African Coalition of the ICC met Cameroonian authorities. Promises were made, and our hopes were raised, but nothing happened.

Last year, the ICC even organised a seminar in Cameroon, which was officially opened by the then Minister Delegate in the Ministry of Justice, Prof Maurice Kamto. ICC normally does not do things this way, as Cameroon is not yet a member. But, then, this was also a strategy to try to bring the country onboard. By the way, there is nothing in our Constitution that will contravene the treaty.

What is CICC all about and how is CICC-Cameroon faring?

The Coalition of the International Criminal Court, CICC, is a global network of over 2000 civil society organisations, supporting a fair, effective, and independent International Criminal Court, ICC. Well, as for CICC-Cameroon, we are pushing on, despite all the odds.  We have scheduled the elective General Assembly of CICC-Cameroon, for May 18-19, 2012, in Yaounde.

While out here in the United States, I have sent out invitations to several NGOs back at home, to attend the General Assembly, and, also, become active members of CICC-Cameroon. Having served the CICC for a number of years as Vice Chair, and, then, currently as Acting Chair, I will like to hand over the leadership baton to another member. So, I will not run in the elections. But, I will remain a very committed and active member of the CICC family, worldwide.    

A new Chief Prosecutor, who happens to be an African, has been announced for the ICC in June 2012. Do you think that an African will be up to the task, especially in matters concerning African countries?

I know the new Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Batou Bensouda, whom I have met on a number of occasions, the last time being in Geneva in March 2012. She is a very intelligent lady, and has strong will power. She does not condone wrong doings.

She is frank and courageous. She is, in fact, an iron lady. She served before as Minister of Justice in her country, the Gambia. She has served the ICC from creation, as Deputy Prosecutor. She has also doubled as Head of the Prosecutions Division at the ICC. She was also a Prosecutor at the International Tribunal for Rwanda. So, she has a very rich experience to handle the very challenging task of Chief Prosecutor.

I am confident that she has all it takes to squarely face the tasks and challenges of that office. To me, she is, logically, the right person to replace the outgoing Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. And, let me tell you that I do not see the Fatou Bensouda that I know personally, succumbing to demands by Africans or compromising on issues of grievous atrocities in Africa.

First published in The Post print edition no. 01341

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