The trial of Charles Taylor finally got moving today. Things were stalled for a while after Taylor fired his original lawyer and demanded more money to fund his defense. Everyone kind of thought he was being a jerk about it, but the gross disparities in funding, abilities, and resources between war crimes prosecution and defense counsel is an issue I’ve always been a little ambivalent on.
On the one hand, war crimes tribunals are not just about punishing perpetrators, but about promoting the rule of law. The fair trial principle of “equality of arms” is often treated pretty cavalierly at war crimes trials, the prosecution of which often involves “hundreds of witness and thousands of exhibits . . . as well as expert evidence in forensics, history, and military affairs.” Add experts on the international diamond trade and on the psychological effects of war on child soldiers and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Taylor is up against.
On the other hand, international law on fair trial standards is not generally interpreted to require the defense be provided with resources equivalent to the prosecution’s firepower.
And on the third hand, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, under whose auspices Taylor is being tried, has mandated a “reasonable equivalence in ability and resources of Prosecution and Defence.” (Despite the establishment of a Defence Office to pursue this goal, Human Rights Watch found in 2004 that the defense attorneys still had less space to work in, more limited access to computers and other equipment, and fewer training opportunities than did prosecutors.)
But on the fourth hand, it’s tough to make the case that this money is better spent on defending a man who is obviously guilty in the particularly brutal mistreatment of an entire nation, rather than on his victims. You could buy a lot of “I was victimized by the RUF … Ask me how” t-shirts with the $100,000 / month defense budget.