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A History of Political Trials

From Charles I to Charles Taylor

John Laughland

The modern use of international tribunals to try heads of state for genocide and crimes against humanity is often considered a positive development. Many people think that the establishment of special courts to prosecute notorious dictators represents a triumph of law over impunity. In A History of Political Trials, John Laughland takes a very different and controversial view. He shows that trials of heads of state are in fact not new, and that previous trials throughout history have themselves violated the law and due process. It is the historical account which carries the argument. By examining trials of heads of state and government throughout history – figures as different as Charles I, Louis XVI, Erich Honecker, Saddam Hussein and Charles Taylor – Laughland shows that modern trials of heads of state have ugly historical precedents. In their different ways, all the trials he describes were marked by arbitrariness and injustice, and many were gross exercises in hypocrisy. Political trials, he finds, are only the continuation of war by other means. With short and easy chapters, but the fruit of formidable erudition and wide reading, this book will force the general reader to re-examine prevailing opinions on this subject.
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19 The Trial of Charles Taylor


26 April 2012 was a historic day for international criminal law, albeit not quite in the way intended. Judgement was to be pronounced on the first head of state to be tried by an international tribunal since Nuremberg. Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, had been in custody at the Special Court for Sierra Leone since 2006 and his trial had been held, since 2007, in a spare courtroom at the International Criminal Court (created in 2002) in The Hague. The long process of enabling a supranational legal order finally to hold heads of state to account seemed to have achieved triumphant fulfilment.

Ever since the creation of the ad hoc tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda at the beginning of the 1990s, and since the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court – signed in 1998, the treaty entered into force in 2002 – a veritable industry had grown up around the slogan ‘an end to impunity’. This industry was composed of non-governmental organisations, scores of which have adopted ‘an end to impunity’ as their slogan, and of the new international criminal tribunals with their gargantuan budgets. The new international tribunals were supposed to usher in a new era in which heads of state would no longer be able to hide behind the concept of state sovereignty or sovereign immunity, held by supporters of this new vision to be cynical and outdated – even though the charters of these same tribunals all provide immunity from prosecution for their...

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