The Western Faculty of Law’s ‘Distinguished Speakers’ program hosted an open and shocking discussion on West African child soldiers Wednesday afternoon.
David Crane, retired chief prosecutor for the Special Court in Sierra Leone, opened the discussion with the news that indicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor had just been apprehended.
According to Crane, Taylor is responsible for, “the murder, rape and mutilation of 1.2 million human beings.
“It’s a great day for international law,” Crane said. “The sunshine seems a little brighter today, especially for the people of West Africa.”
The Special Court in Sierra Leone prosecutes the crimes against humanity committed during the Sierra Leone civil war, said Crane, adding the court is at the cutting edge of prosecuting those who use child soldiers.
Crane said he led a team which indicted 13 leaders in West Africa on multiple counts, including recruiting and using child soldiers. He said Taylor was one of only two of the 13 leaders who had not been apprehended. The 13th leader is believed to be dead.
Crane discussed the difficulties of securing Taylor’s indictment.
“When you want to seal the indictment of a sitting head of state in Africa, the going can get very tough, especially when the world’s only superpower isn’t being very supportive.”
Crane stated Taylor became involved in Sierra Leone to take control of the country’s lucrative diamond mines.
According to Crane, an essential tactic of Taylor’s forces was recruiting children as young as seven years old. Crane said in some instances children were made to kill their own parents before joining fighting groups in the bush.
Crane estimated tens of thousands of children were affected.
“It’s a lost generation,” he said. “When the conflict ended in 2002, it left a state in ruins. Children were left without parents, with no education and no hope.”
Crane said the courts depended on witness testimony to secure convictions, since few victims are literate enough to provide statements.
The cases depended on special handling of witnesses in order to deal with issues such as safety from reprisals, and most witnesses had no concept of the law, Crane said.
“We had a witness management program. In the instance of one young boy, it took two years to get him ready to testify.”
Students at the presentation felt the issues in West Africa are not well known at Western.
“I think people who are interested in international law are aware, but not the general public. It was eye-opening,” said third-year law student Erin McDermid.
“I don’t think students know about it, but I think it’s gaining awareness,” said second-year law student Mike Hassell.