Article 10(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:
All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.
Paragraph 3 of article 10 says
The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.
It is hard to rejoice about a 50-year sentence being imposed on a 65-year old, no matter how heinous and terrible the crimes he committed may have been.
Fifty years is not the highest sentence ever imposed by an international criminal tribunal. A few years ago, the same Special Court for Sierra Leone imposed a sentence of 52 years. But none of the other tribunals has ever imposed such a high sentence. Not even close.
The judges of the Special Court will explain that they need to do this because they cannot impose a sentence of life imprisonment, which seems to be excluded by the Statute of the Special Court. At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, this option is available, although it has only rarely been used.
At the International Criminal Court (which has never yet imposed a sentence), there is a maximum sentence of 30 years. The judges may also impose a life sentence “when justified by the extreme gravity of the crime and the individual circumstances of the convicted person”. However, the sentence is subject to a mandatory review after 25 years.
What is troubling about the 50-year sentence given to Charles Taylor is the implicit message that he should never be released. There is provision in the Rules of Procedure and Evidence for a reduction in the sentence at some point in the future. But nothing in the Statute of the Court or in the Rules gives Charles Taylor the right to seek reduction in the sentence at any point in time.
There is the haunting precedent of Rudolf Hess, the only Nazi defendant to be given a life sentence at Nuremberg. Of course, the majority were sentenced to death. But some of the Nazi villains, like Albert Speer, were given sentences of 20 years. Hess server more than thirty years of his sentence, unable to achieve any form of release because of differences of opinion at the political level. He tried, unsuccessfully, to bring his case to Strasbourg. He finally committed suicide.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone could have achieved the same result with a sentence of 25 or 30 years. Indeed, it is for this reason that the other international criminal tribunals, as well as justice systems of most countries, do not generally impose custodial sentences with fixed terms greater than 25 or 30 years.
As article 10 of the Covenant recalls, a detention regime must never lose sight of the ‘inherent dignity of the human person’. The ‘essential aim’ must be ‘reformation and social rehabilitation’. If we fail to honour his human dignity, we damage our own. There is no reason why Charles Taylor cannot be reformed and rehabilitated. This must not be forgotten as the Court attempts to find a sentence that adequately reflects the horror of the crimes that he committed.