The rule of law wins a few against the wicked after all


LONDON — Naomi Campbell may be dimwitted and self-centered, and the poor schmuck she gave the diamonds to 13 years ago is in deep trouble even though he never tried to turn them into cash, but she certainly is useful. If she hadn’t been forced to testify, nine out of 10 people wouldn’t even know who Charles Taylor is.

It worked. Unless you were on Mars last week, you know that Taylor, the former Liberian strongman, is on trial at The Hague on charges of terrorism, murder, rape, enslavement and torture. You know it because the star-struck Taylor gave Campbell some illegal “blood diamonds” when they were both Nelson Mandela’s guests in South Africa in 1997, and because Mia Farrow (who was also there) eventually blew the whistle on her.

It’s not a story about war crimes, it’s a media-feeding frenzy about celebrities. When Campbell gave her evidence to the international court in The Hague, the number of journalists covering the trial jumped tenfold. She has served her purpose: Now everybody knows that Taylor has been brought to trial for killing, torturing and maiming hundreds of thousands of his fellow Africans.

He is the first former African head of state ever to face an international court for the crimes he committed. There are a dozen others, many still in office, who deserve to stand beside him. Most of them never will, but the rule of law never meant that all the wicked people get punished. At best, some are caught and punished, and with luck most of the rest moderate their behavior to avoid the same fate.

Even in long-established states, the rule of law is constantly being challenged and subverted. In the international sphere, heads of state and other senior government officials were basically immune to prosecution until recently — but Taylor’s trial is an encouraging sign, and it is not the only one.

In Cambodia, another United Nations-backed tribunal delivered its first verdict last month, sentencing former prison boss Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch,” to 35 years in jail. Duch was a minor official in the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and killed about a quarter of the population. More judgments will follow.

Duch came first because he ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, where the lucky inmates were only tortured for a week or two before they were murdered. Seventeen thousand went in; seven survived. Thirty-five years of prison seems too short, and the judge commuted it to 19 years because of time already served. But Duch will be 86 years old in 19 years — and the sentence is far less important than the fact that there was a trial.

Later this year, the trials of the real leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime will begin: head of state Khieu Samphan, deputy prime minister Nuon Chea (“Brother No. 2”), foreign minister Ieng Sary, and his wife Ieng Thirith, the minister of social affairs. (“Brother No. 1” Pol Pot died in 1998.) No penalty can match their crimes, but at least they will finally face a court.

If you seek perfect justice, you’ll have to die first. In the real world, bringing the powerful to justice generally involves a certain amount of bargaining. Take Turkey, where the government announced Monday that 102 military officers accused of plotting a coup against the democratic order would not be arrested after all. In strictly legal terms it was a deeply unsatisfactory outcome. In practical terms, it was the best outcome imaginable.

Turkey is no Liberia or Cambodia. It is a state with centuries of history as an empire, and over half a century as a democracy. But it was always a country where the armed forces felt that they had the final veto.

Four democratically elected Turkish governments have been overthrown by the military in the past 50 years. When the current government, whose appeal is strongest to devoutly Muslim voters, was first elected in 1992, many soldiers felt that they had to “defend the secular state” again. They were wrong, but much of the senior officer corps got involved in discussions about a coup code-named “sledgehammer.” It never happened, but years later the story came out. The rule of law was at stake, so the government arrested some senior soldiers.

This was unprecedented in Turkey, where the military has always been sacrosanct. More arrests followed, some trials got under way, and everybody held their breath waiting to see what the military would do. Answer: They nominated a general who had been implicated in the coup discussions as the chief of the land forces.

So the government announced that 102 more officers, including 25 generals and admirals, would be arrested. After a tense staring match, the military backed down. A different officer, not implicated in “sledgehammer,” will now become the land forces chief — and the 102 arrests were canceled.

If you want the flawless enforcement of laws that rise above human politics, don’t look for it here — and even less in Liberia or Cambodia. But if you would like to see the rule of law advance in the world, however haltingly, then take heart.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.