Yesterday a special tribunal in the Hague convicted Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, of crimes against humanity. It was an historic ruling, the first ruler of a country ever to be convicted. Taylor was found guilty of aiding and abetting the Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone, and for supporting the atrocities of that civil war: using children as soldiers, mass rape, abducting girls and women as sex slaves, and forcing children to fight after killing their parents and fellow villagers. Yet the court yesterday convicted him only of aiding and abetting the RUF, but not for the civil war he committed against his own country, or for the atrocities and crimes he committed against his own people as ruler. Which raises many questions:

  • Is it still justice if it’s unevenly applied?
  • Is it still justice if other warlords and criminals are still at large, with no one clamoring for their indictment?
  • What about the countries on the UN Security Council, whose countries perpetuate human rights abuses but whose rulers are virtually immune from ever being indicted for their abuses?

If laws aren’t perfect, what is their use? 

A friend of mine was eye witness to some of the worst horrors of the last century as a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontier (Doctors without Borders). He worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) during the Rwandan refugee crisis; in Kigali, Rwanda during the 1994 genocide; and in Baidoa, Somalia during the civil war and famine of 1992-93. Witnessing the absolute worst brutalities that humans can perpetrate on one another, he asked me about my work with groups and conflict. Can even these kinds of conflict be transformed? Do these methods do anything to transform the masterminds behind such atrocities?

I wish I could say yes, but I’m not sure. Conflict resolution and laws fall prey to the same paradox: they work best for those who are already predisposed to benefit from them. Laws are created after a  crime has been committed. And they work for those who already tend to obey laws, not for those who flaunt them, i.e. the very people for whom these laws are intended. And the same is true for conflict resolution and restorative justice, and other transformative methods that address attitudes. They work best with people whose attitudes are already predisposed to transformation.

So what is the purpose of laws, of conflict resolution methods if they don’t work with the worst offenders?

I don’t have the answer, but I have my answer. Laws create public dialogue. And public dialogue changes tolerance levels. And that’s the long slow process of progress. Conversation raises awareness which sets a new (in)tolerance level for abuse.

Laws and public forums create a dialogue about issues that previously weren’t discussed. Once a topic is out in the open, it takes on a life of its own. Soon after the broadcast about Taylor, there was a story about a young woman in Morocco who committed suicide rather than being forced to marry her rapist.  Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code has been used to justify a traditional practice of making a rapist marry his victim to preserve the honor of the woman’s family.

In the report, a lawmaker justified the law by saying that even though the law was outdated, Moroccan society was more comfortable with conservative tradition. An activist refuted his claim by saying that laws don’t follow attitudes; sometimes attitudes are shaped by laws. This may be the case of Charles Taylor. The law creates a global conversation; it is a line in the sand, and though others may cross it, it nonetheless has been drawn. Though debated, flaunted, imperfectly applied, it is there for all to discuss.

If I look at history, I do see a growing intolerance for behaviors that were once considered normal. We only need to look at an advertisement from the 1950s of a husband spanking his wife for buying the wrong coffee brand to see how public intolerance for domestic violence has grown. People can no longer publicly use racial epithets that were once commonplace; teachers can no longer spank children with impunity; homosexual marriage is now a mainstream topic; we question the use of torturing animals for science. And the list goes on. No, we are not there yet. There are more conversations to be had. Why isn’t health care a human right? Why does the US have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and have the highest percent of imprisoned minorities than any other country in the world? Abuse is rampant, in many cases institutionalized, and human rights violations are commonplace. We still have a long, long way to go to become a truly humane, equitable civilization.

So, why do I do what I do? Why work for any cause that can’t be perfectly achieved? Why have laws that are not evenly applied? Because history shows that once something is in the public conversation, it begins the long, slow process of resetting the tolerance point. The law is not the end, but one small step in establishing the new normal.