04/26/2012 11:36 EDT | Updated 06/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Taylor 2012: A Historic Day for International Justice

Today was judgment day for Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia. Judges delivered the verdict in his trial for atrocities committed by rebel groups under his command in neighboring Sierra Leone during its 10-year civil war in the 1990s.

The fact that Taylor was found guilty at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), brings some measure of justice to his victims -- for the families of the thousands slaughtered, for the women raped, for those who had their arms, legs and lips "amputated," for the children forced to commit unspeakable acts as child soldiers and for those enslaved as miners for blood diamonds.

The conviction is a historic day for international justice. For the first time since Nuremberg, a former Head of State will has been convicted at an International Criminal Tribunal. The world was deprived of this victory when Slobodan Milosevic died before the end of his trial for crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Few believed this day would ever come. In 2003, after being indicted by the SCSL and with opposition forces closing in on Monrovia, Taylor hightailed it out of Liberia and was granted asylum in Nigeria. He was gone, out of reach of the short arm of international criminal law. There was little hope for his victims that he would ever be held accountable.

But the world had changed. If they could get Milosevic, why not Taylor, another former head of state? And so, a coalition of governments from around the world, pressured by their citizens and domestic and African NGOs, demanded that Taylor face justice.

Feeling the groundswell in 2006, Liberia's newly elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah made the courageous decision to officially request Taylor's handover from their powerful West African neighbour. This was a politically sensitive call for Johnson Sirleaf, given the volatility in her country and the support Taylor still enjoyed among many of his countrymen and former combatants. But it worked. Satisfied with his political cover, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo lifted the veil of Taylor's protection.

Shocked by this impossible turn of events, Taylor fled his luxury compound. He was captured -- barely -- trying to cross the border into Cameroon.

Two days later, a United Nations helicopter carried a handcuffed Taylor to the SCSL in Freetown. The capital's citizens had heard rumours on BBC radio that afternoon -- Taylor had been caught, and he was coming. Hundreds of men, women and children climbed up to the rooftops of neighbouring houses and watched as the helicopter came swooping down at dusk.

Men shouted and cried. Women wailed with relief. The author of their misfortune was here at last. And he would be made to answer for his crimes.

Get Taylor. This was Kony 2012 six years earlier. No YouTube, no Twitter, just an international advocacy campaign based on the determination that there could be no peace without justice, and that these victims would not be forgotten.

International justice is not a panacea for all the evil in the world. Or if it is, Omar al-Bashir is undeterred. Moscow is now providing arms to his regime and few speak of a referral to the International Criminal Court, aside from Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

al-Bashir is similarly untouchable, still at the helm in Khartoum, despite his indictment by the ICC. Chinese protection remains solidly in place for its client, as does the flow of oil from Sudan to China. Al-Bashir freely visits states that flout the international arrest warrant for his handover to the ICC - none more brazenly than China itself.

But international justice is a tool, one of the most effective in the kit of the international community to stop and deter atrocities and to put an end to the days of Big Men impunity.

Consider the list of those who have been caught and put on trial at the world's international criminal tribunals in the last decade and a half. Milosevic and his butcher-generals. The leaders of the genocidal killing-machine in Rwanda. Even Pol Pot's senior collaborators -- now 30 years after their horrors in Cambodia. And Taylor.

Consider too the legacy of legal "firsts." The recognition -- finally -- of rape and other forms of sexual violence as international crimes. The recognition of the use and conscription of child soldiers as a crime under International Humanitarian Law - charged for the first time at the SCSL. And the rejection of Head-of-State immunity. Just to name a few.

Or simply consider the alternative for Sierra Leone and Liberia if there had been no effort to put those bearing the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone on trial.

The rebel leaders under Taylor's command would still be free. Instead they have been tried and found guilty. Sierra Leone is at peace. Liberians would still be living under the spectre of Taylor's possible resurgence. Instead the country recently re-elected Johnson Sirleaf, the continent's first female head-of-state. Last year she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

As for Taylor, instead of being free to plot his return, he has been sentenced. The people of Sierra Leone have heard justice pronounced, at long last.