The conviction of Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, of aiding and abetting war crimes in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone, has been widely praised. World leaders and human rights groups have applauded the Hague tribunal’s ruling for “sending a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable," as a State Department spokesperson said.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, termed Taylor’s conviction in the Hague “a historic moment in the development of international justice.” And U.S. Representative Chris Smith, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights that worked to bring Taylor to trial, called his conviction “a just verdict”—a view expressed by many survivors and relatives of victims in Sierra Leone.
A just verdict? Not according to New York Times Op-Ed contributor J. Peter Pham. A conviction for complicity in crimes committed in another country which ignores the atrocities Taylor committed against the citizens of his own country is hardly worth celebrating. After a trial lasting six years, Pham argues, and with many of Taylor’s henchmen still in power, true justice for Liberians seems a long way off.
Simone de Beauvoir would have agreed. While not condoning the sort of rough justice suffered by Muammar Gaddafi at the hands of his subjects, she might have preferred seeing Taylor tried and executed by his own countrymen, as was the case with those accused and convicted of war crimes in France during World War II.
Salutary executions, Beauvoir argues in her 1946 essay, “An Eye for an Eye," are the only means of restoring the moral certainties that were compromised during the German Occupation. “One may excuse all the offenses and all the crimes individuals commit against society, but when a man deliberately applies himself to degrade another man and turn him into a thing, it is necessary to eradicate from the earth a scandal that nothing can undo,” she writes.
The purging of war criminals was a means of restoring France’s integrity following the moral disgrace of Vichy, Beauvoir argues. Nothing less than the nation’s legitimacy was at stake: the principles enshrined in the French Revolution, its proud commitment to justice and human decency. “If,” she concluded, “...the values according to which we live are real, if they have weight, it is not shocking to uphold them at the cost of a life.”
- Lisa Lieberman
Lisa Lieberman's translation of Simone de Beauvoir's 1946 essay, "An Eye for an Eye" can be purchased for $1.99 through Amazon Kindle Singles , Barnes and Noble Nook Books, and Kobo Books. Her current project, Lost Belongings, explores the moral and political choices of exiled Holocaust survivors after the war.