- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

Taylor on trial

The war-crimes trial of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor will open today in The Hague, a venue far from the East African nightmare he is accused of fomenting and funding.

Mr. Taylor is said to have stoked Sierra Leone’s gruesome 11-year civil war by supporting rebels who terrorized the population by cutting off the hands and feet of victims. He is also said to have pocketed diamonds mined in rebel-controlled areas.

The former strongman, who continued to meddle in Liberian politics throughout his exile in Nigeria, has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, such as ordering the killings, sexual enslavement, abductions and maimings of victims.

Mr. Taylor, 59, was to be tried by a special U.N. tribunal in Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, but the venue has been switched to The Hague because of security concerns.

Counting civilians

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is developing a database to track civilian deaths in Afghanistan, an ambitious project considering the variety of heavily armed combatants and the scope of conflicts there.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) estimates there were up to 380 civilian deaths in the first four months of 2007, a figure significantly higher than the estimates of the country’s own monitoring unit.

The casualties include victims of NATO airpower, Taliban fighters using villagers as human shields and “collateral damage” from shootouts with insurgents in urban areas.

President Hamid Karzai has demanded that the coalition be much more careful when dropping bombs.

But “civilian” is an elastic term in a conflict where every household has a weapon and it’s nearly impossible to know whether a dead young man was an innocent or insurgent.

UNAMA concedes that a database is overdue, but officials warn that gathering information in a place as confusing and underdeveloped as Afghanistan will be difficult.

“We have seen more military operations this year, yet our efforts to count and verify figures have been restricted by a complex environment and we have found it very difficult to be accurate,” UNAMA human rights director Richard Bennett told reporters in Kabul.

Meanwhile, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has called for an independent body of Red Cross officials, journalists and prominent Afghans to investigate and identify the causes of civilian casualties.

A database of causes and casualties could help the United States and NATO win over the Afghan people, said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of CIVIC, a nonprofit organization that promotes civilian welfare in conflicts.

“The Afghan people are really angry now, because they know their sons and daughters and neighbors are being killed, and they don’t see anyone taking responsibility,” she said last week.

Miss Holewinski also suggested there would be military benefits for the West. “A database would help prove it if they are being more careful with [air strikes] and also could tell them why there was such a high death toll in some strikes.”

Delicate post

The White House last week named former U.N. Ambassador Anne Patterson as its choice to be the next ambassador to Pakistan, one of the most delicate postings in Southeast Asia.

Mrs. Patterson served in New York for nearly three years: From January to August 2005, she was chief of mission for several grueling months between John C. Danforth and John R. Bolton.

A seasoned diplomat who has served in Colombia, El Salvador and Washington, Mrs. Patterson is currently assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. If confirmed by the Senate, Mrs. Patterson would replace Ryan Crocker, now ambassador to Iraq.

Betsy Pisik may be reached via e-mail at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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