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History of the Conflict

Charles Taylor

The human cost of Liberia’s two civil wars and the related conflict in Sierra Leone was staggering. 200,000 people were killed, 2 million displaced, and half of Sierra Leone’s female population subjected to sexual violence including rape, torture and sexual slavery. Natural resources did not trigger these conflicts, but they were crucial to funding them.

As rebel leader and later president, warlord Charles Taylor monopolised the diamond industry in Liberia and then eastern Sierra Leone, where he traded diamonds for guns with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The signature tactic of the RUF was to mark victims by hacking off their limbs. At its peak, this rebel group was bringing in as much as $125m annually from the illicit diamond trade.    

Global Witness first exposed how “blood diamonds” were driving these conflicts, and a UN investigation in 2000 confirmed that stones were being systematically smuggled out from eastern Sierra Leone through Liberia, and from there onto the international market. The UN finally imposed sanctions on Liberian diamonds in March 2001 – at which point the Taylor regime turned its focus onto the timber trade. Taylor established a shadow state that bypassed the normal state institutions and diverted timber revenues to private bank accounts rather than the national treasury.

Liberia's timber revenues were at least US$106 million in 2000, but government accounts show only US$7 million of this money appearing in state coffers. The trade was a key cog in Taylor’s war machine, with logging company militias acting as private armies and companies themselves trafficking arms.

In March 2003, the Special Court for Sierra Leone formally indicted Charles Taylor for war crimes, including murder, rape and pillage.  UN timber sanctions were finally imposed in July 2003, more than two years after they were first discussed by the Security Council. The following month, with his funding cut off and various rebel groups advancing on Monrovia, Taylor went into exile in Calabar, Nigeria. He remained involved in Liberian politics, in contravention the terms of his exile deal, until his escape and subsequent arrest on 29 March 2006.

Charles Taylor’s war crimes trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone continues in The Hague today.

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