- - Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Today is historic. For the first time in history, an international court will issue a verdict in the war crimes trial of a head of state.

The defendant, Charles Taylor, 64, is the former president of Liberia. Once an African “strong man” wielding immense power, he has spent the last 3 1/2 years in a courtroom in The Hague, surrounded by United Nations guards, listening to international prosecutors present evidence regarding his role in helping Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front wage a bloody campaign during a 10-year civil war that claimed nearly 120,000 lives.

Mr. Taylor is not the first head of state to be dragged before an international tribunal to be tried for war crimes. To be fair, that happened in 2001, when Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Yugoslavia, was brought to justice at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Sadly, his death (brought on, in part, by his own actions) months before the end of his trial, helped him escape the judgment of a three-judge panel that now awaits Mr. Taylor. Thus, in a way, the dreams of international justice and the end of impunity that began with Milosevic’s arrest more than a decade ago are finally coming true in the case of Charles Taylor.

The court this time is the Special Court for Sierra Leone. It is trying Mr. Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international law, including terrorism, rape, sexual slavery, and recruiting and using child soldiers. The charges stem from allegations that Mr. Taylor founded, funded and supported the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel army responsible for mass atrocities in neighboring Sierra Leone - including reports of Mr. Taylor’s fighters stringing human intestines across roads, removing fetuses from women’s wombs, hacking off appendages and practicing cannibalism.

As the world learned during the trial, Mr. Taylor funded this bloodshed, in part, by plundering state resources and trading in “blood diamonds” - including those he allegedly gave to former supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1997, at a dinner hosted by then-South African President Nelson Mandela.

While some 94 witnesses are said to have taken the stand in the prosecution’s cases against Mr. Taylor, likely the most famous were those that testified to the Taylor-Campbell “blood diamond” affair.

According to actress Mia Farrow, following a dinner discussion between Mr. Taylor and Miss Campbell, the British model was given “blood diamonds” by associates of Mr. Taylor. Should this be proven, it will stand as one more example of the proposition that those who are willing to slaughter thousands of innocents are also willing to steal millions in assets, as Mr. Taylor purportedly did during the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Sadly, it seems that the link between war crimes and economic crimes is that one leads to the other. Without money from “blood diamonds” and other natural resources, Mr. Taylor was limited in what he was able to accomplish. But with supporters, business associates and friends in multiple countries and global financial centers willing to look the other way, Mr. Taylor’s particular brand of evil was able to flourish not just via warfare, but also through financial transactions throughout the world.

It is because of the global nature of such grand corruption that Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, and Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, launched the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. By assisting governments in their efforts to recover the proceeds of grand corruption, the initiative serves as one more element in the fight against impunity, as it helps ensure there are no safe havens for stolen assets. Thus, while tribunals such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone are important for holding perpetrators of war crimes responsible for their actions, recovering stolen assets is another important means of targeting those who act as financial enablers, thereby helping end the impunity for such crimes.

In a world plagued by injustice, ending the impunity so often associated with crimes perpetrated by heads of state is no small feat. Thus, the mere fact that Mr. Taylor was arrested and tried is a victory in itself. But the victories today do not end there.

Led by a forward-looking president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia has gone a step beyond the “new” standard of international justice - prosecuting the head of state - and has chosen to go after his stolen assets as well. In doing so, she is helping establish a whole new standard of international justice and the fight against impunity, one that targets the person - and the wallet - and one that hopefully, with time, will lead to the end of the impunity as we know it.

Mark V. Vlasic is senior fellow and adjunct professor of law with the Institute for Law, Science and Global Security at Georgetown University.