Charles Taylor and the Special Court for Sierra Leone

Mark A. Drumbl
April 12, 2006

On April 3, 2006, former Liberian President Charles Taylor made his first appearance before the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). He pleaded not guilty to eleven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Taylor had been indicted by the SCSL in 2003.  The charges against him involve facilitating, ordering, planning, and aiding and abetting a number of crimes, including terrorizing the civilian population, unlawful killings, conscription of child soldiers, and sexual violence.


 He had been transferred to the SCSL on March 29, 2006.  In Resolution 1667, adopted on March 31, 2006, the United Nations Security Council welcomed Taylor?s transfer to the custody of the SCSL.

Taylor allegedly instigated and backed rebels during internecine strife in Sierra Leone, Liberia?s neighbor. Taylor is said to have provided financial and military assistance to the rebels with whom he acted in concert to gain control over Sierra Leone in order to access the country?s diamonds and other resources. Over 50,000 individuals, many of whom were civilians, were killed during armed conflict between rebel groups and pro-government militias. Many others were grievously maimed. Child soldiers -- often drugged and abused -- were widely used.  The armed conflict ended in 2002. 

Political change in Liberia led to Taylor?s being taken into custody.  Recent national elections in Liberia resulted in the victory of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Shortly after assuming office, President Johnson Sirleaf requested Nigeria to arrest Taylor pursuant to the SCSL indictment and transfer him to international authorities. Taylor had previously been granted asylum in Nigeria under a peace accord that ended fourteen years of civil strife in Liberia (during which approximately 250,000 individuals were killed). Following President Johnson Sirleaf?s intervention, Nigeria stated that it would arrest Taylor. According to media reports, Taylor then attempted to flee Nigeria but was arrested by Nigerian officials on the border with Cameroon.



The SCSL was established by agreement between Sierra Leone and the United Nations to prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996.


 The SCSL, a ?hybrid? tribunal that involves Sierra Leonean and international officials, is located in Sierra Leone?s capital, Freetown.  At the time of the Taylor arraignment, nine defendants were being tried in three trials.  

Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the SCSL have raised concerns that prosecuting Taylor in Sierra Leone would present security risks that might destabilize the region and that Taylor?s continued presence in the region constitutes a threat to international peace and security. All three have requested that the proceedings be conducted by the SCSL, but be moved to the facilities of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Effectively this means that the SCSL would conduct the trial, but that it would take place in The Hague and not in Freetown. The matter is currently under consideration at the United National Security Council, where a draft resolution has been circulated supporting the transfer of the proceedings to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Along with the ICC, other potential venues in The Hague include facilities of other international courts (e.g. the ICTY) or those of Dutch national courts. At the time of writing, it remains unclear whether the Security Council would adopt a resolution or whether it might first undertake a comprehensive review of the security situation in Freetown and any measures that could ameliorate that situation.  It also remains unclear whether a decision supporting the SCSL?s sitting in The Hague would be permanent, or subject to subsequent review in light of the unfolding security situation (and thereby would contemplate a return to Freetown). In any event, even if transfer were authorized, it would take some time to complete the details thereof and coordinate matters with the Netherlands.

Article 10 of the Agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone on the Establishment of the SCSL envisions that, although the seat of the SCSL will be in Sierra Leone, the SCSL ?may meet away from its seat if it considers it necessary for the efficient exercise of its functions.? Article 10 contemplates that the SCSL ?may be relocated outside Sierra Leone, if circumstances so require? and, of course, subject to the conclusion of an agreement with the government of an alternative seat which, in the case of the Taylor trial, apparently would be the Netherlands.

Even though the Agreement establishing the SCSL contemplates the possibility of relocation outside of Sierra Leone, relocating the proceedings might counter part of the rationale behind the creation of the SCSL in the first place.  One important rationale was to move justice closer to the people of Sierra Leone. Transfer will also raise complexities insofar as the SCSL would be sitting in two locations, with its three ongoing trials presumably remaining in Freetown.  Moreover, there is the question of the additional resources required to move witnesses to The Hague, although this may come with the benefit of ensuring their safety ? at least during the trial phase.  In the end, however, it is understandable that certain actors in the region may be leery of pursuing justice at the price of threatening peace, and it is these actors who are among the most familiar with potential security threats. 

Taylor reportedly opposes the transfer.


Although he has raised concerns that he fears for his own safety while in the SCSL?s custody, he also insists he could receive a fair trial only in Sierra Leone.


About the author

Mark Drumbl is Associate Professor and Ethan Allen Faculty Fellow at the School of Law, Washington & Lee University. His book, Atrocity, Punishment, and International Law, is to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2007.



[1] The Special Court for Sierra Leone, Case No. SCSL-2003-01-I, Amended Indictment and Case Summary Accompanying the Amended Indictment (received by the SCSL March 17, 2006).


  Hans Nichols and Lydia Polgreen, Charles Taylor Pleads Not Guilty to War Crimes, New York Times (on-line) (April 3, 2006).


Statute of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, art. 1, available at; Agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone on the Establishment of a Special Court for Sierra Leone, art. 1 (January 16, 2002), available at; S.C. Res. 1315 U.N. SCOR, 55th Sess., 4186th mtg (2000). 


Taylor Somersaults Again, The Analyst (Monrovia) (April 4, 2006), available at