Experts have told members of the U.S. Congress peace in Liberia and the success of the new government there depend on former president Charles Taylor being turned over for prosecution on war crimes charges to the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The recent inauguration of Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf raised some optimism for Liberians after years of a bloody civil war that left an estimated 600,000 people dead.
However, Charles Taylor, who has been indicted for war crimes, remains in Nigeria where he lives in an internationally negotiated exile.
So far the Nigerian government has not turned him over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone to be prosecuted. President Johnson-Sirleaf has given no specific answers about Taylor's surrender.
David Crane, the court's former Chief Prosecutor until last year, says Taylor continues to be a threat for Liberia. "He meant it then, and he means it to this day -- he will be back. Charles Taylor knows [that] the western world, to include the United States, better than we do ourselves. He is relatively young, wealthy, influential and has a supportive base militarily and politically within Liberia and the Mano River region. Taylor knows that the west, particularly this country, will never send its sons and daughters to West Africa, to stabilize a faltering Liberia," he said.
Crane was among witnesses at a hearing [Wednesday] of the House Africa Subcommittee. All expressed concern a combination of Taylor's influence in Liberia, easily-obtainable weapons, and economic strife could undermine President Johnson-Sirleaf.
Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, says nothing stands in the way of Taylor being transferred to the court. "We have said, and Secretary [of State] Rice has said to [Nigerian] President Obasanjo in her meetings with him, as well as to President Sirleaf Johnson, that we would want to make sure that Charles Taylor is turned over to the Sierra Leone Court, sooner the better," she said.
Republican Congressman Ed Royce says it is time Nigeria turns over Taylor, in response to an expected request from the newly-elected Liberian government. "Until he is tried, he continues to plot in seaside Calabar, Nigeria. Taylor says he will return to Liberia and I would say that his track record suggests that he would do that if he isn't stopped," he said.
In other testimony, West Africa expert J. Peter Pham of James Madison University, says Liberia confronts big challenges: building a national government, overcoming constitutional flaws, updating out-dated laws and a shattered judicial system, and holding former officials accountable.
Liberia, he says, could be a beacon of success in a combustible region where problems persist in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Guinea, while the alternative is not pretty. "If on the other hand, Liberia stagnates or worse, slides back into chaos it will once again serve both as a catalyst and fuel in a regional conflagration that will undo a decade's worth of patient efforts by the United States, our British and French allies in Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire respectively, and the international community in general," he said.
Charles Taylor was the first African head of state ever indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
U.S. lawmakers have spoken out strongly on the question of his transfer to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, including a House [of Representatives] resolution last year approved overwhelmingly calling for him to be handed over for prosecution.
They are also urging the Bush administration to maintain adequate funding levels for the Special Court in its final months of operation.
Former Special Prosecutor Crane says any future financial aid to Liberia should be linked to good governance by the Liberian government. He also urges creation of a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and what he calls a hybrid war crimes tribunal.