Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Short-term gratification, but what long-term effect?

Nigeria has bowed to demands from the United Nations and turned former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor over to a U.N. war crimes tribunal.

A plane carrying Taylor left from Maiduguri, capital of northwestern Borno state, for Liberia, a senior police official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Desmond de Silva, the top prosecutor at the U.N.-backed Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal that will try Taylor, told The Associated Press that U.N. forces in Liberia should then transfer Taylor to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

This will undoubtedly make a lot of people feel better, seeing the man responsible for so much death and destruction finally standing trial for his crimes.

But one has to wonder if the world is buying long-term trouble with this move.

Nigeria agreed to grant Taylor asylum in 2003 as part of a pact to end the civil war in Liberia, which had dragged on for 14 years and pretty thoroughly destroyed the country. By surrendering voluntarily Taylor helped ensure that his troops laid down their arms instead of continuing a destructive guerrilla war.

It's unlikely Taylor would have agreed to go into exile if he knew that three years later he would be arrested and put on trial.

Hard-edged diplomacy requires credibility. If the United States is going to threaten someone with military action, it's only effective if the target believes we're serious and not just bluffing. Similarly, offers of asylum are only effective if the recipient believes that the offer will be honored, not rescinded as soon as they've given up power.

Will future tyrants look at what happened to Taylor and reject all offers of asylum? If they do, the world will face two choices: let the tyrant remain in power or bring him down by force -- with the on-going messiness such solutions often bring.

Lasting peace often requires forgiving the unforgivable. Witness what has happened in South Africa, where the government wisely determined that exposing the truth of what happened under apartheid was more important than seeking revenge for past crimes. Such revenge-seeking might have sparked armed resistance among white groups and led to yet another civil war; at the least it would have fractured the country politically. The government recognized that they would have to forgo the satisfaction of revenge in order to forge a peaceful and unified future.

It will be a sad result indeed if indulging the satisfaction of seeing Taylor punished makes future conflicts longer and bloodier than they otherwise might have been.

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