On June 4, 2003, as Liberian President Charles Taylor walked up the steps for the opening ceremony of the Accra Peace Accords in Ghana, I stood in front of the world's press and announced that I had unsealed an indictment charging him with 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The international community reacted with praise - and condemnation. Politicians and diplomats voiced concern that my announcement had jeopardized the newly organized peace process and hopes for stability in West Africa. Some even said that the indictment put lives at risk.
Yet five years later, Liberia is stable, and a fairly elected government is in place with a real possibility that it is on the correct path to a sustainable peace under the leadership of the first woman ever elected a head of state in Africa. Mr. Taylor sits in The Hague on trial before a judicial chamber of the Special Court of Sierra Leone.
The recent actions by the International Criminal Court (ICC) related to the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity have prompted similar rhetoric by politicians and diplomats, who warn of threats to peace, lives and regional stability. Yet the promising outcome in Liberia should encourage the international community to act and focus its efforts to stop the atrocities in Darfur and begin an earnest effort to develop a plan for peace in that region under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
The indictments of Mr. Taylor five years ago and Mr. al-Bashir this week tell the people of Africa that their lives matter and that members of the "club" of African leaders are on notice that they will be held accountable for their actions. The indictment of Mr. al-Bashir also signals to the people of Africa that no one is above the law, that the law is fair, and that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun. This may sound trite to Western ears, but it is a critical message for Africa. In a region where most people have considered the law and governmental institutions a threat, they may begin to realize that through the rule of law, a true and sustainable peace and stable society can emerge from the ashes of Darfur.
Yet, the current leadership in Africa does not get it. Leaders' silence or mumbled condemnation of the ICC's actions reflects their attitude toward the law and their place in the family of nations. The atrocities, the pain and suffering that have been perpetrated upon the people of Africa past in recent decades can't be brushed aside by the statement, "African solutions to African problems." These are international concerns. They are humanity's problems, and they must be dealt with in an international forum, under the rule of law.
These indictments are the building blocks by which Africa can move forward into the 21st century. Accountability, good governance, and the rule of law will bring the stability needed for economic growth and long-term investment. In other words, it is good for business that we foster accountability in all aspects of African society.
The next African head of state who must be held accountable is President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. His arrogant rule has brought great shame on himself, his country, southern Africa, and those who either coddle him or look the other way, like President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. International action must be focused, sustained, open, and fair in dealing with this petty tyrant. Yet the world must act soon. Mr. Mugabe must be dealt with by an appropriate legal mechanism - either a domestic or regional court or the ICC.
On Aug. 29, 2007, most of the world's current and former international prosecutors, from Nuremberg to the International Criminal Court, issued the First Chautauqua Declaration in Upstate New York. This historic declaration stated: "It is no longer about whether individuals agree or disagree with the pursuit of justice in political, moral, or practical terms, now it is the law ... the challenge for states and the international community is to fulfill the promise of the law they created; to enforce judicial decisions; to ensure the arrest and the surrender of sought individuals."
The international community has moved forward slowly and erratically in holding accountable those who commit atrocities around the world. Yet it has moved forward nonetheless. The legal card has been dealt by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, in response to the United Nations Security Council, regarding the grave international crimes perpetrated in Darfur. It is now time for the dangerous game being played out there to end. Only the political process can do that - by working out a way by which Mr. al-Bashir is removed from power and prosecuted.
They did it with Mr. Taylor; they can do it again with Mr. al-Bashir. In the words of the Chautauqua Declaration: It is the law.
David M. Crane is a professor at Syracuse University College of Law and former founding chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa called the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2002-2005. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.