Conflict in Liberia has led to ongoing conflicts and violent struggles as different individuals smuggle weapons into the country. One such individual, Guus Kouwenhoven, was recently convicted for doing just this. Kouwenhoven was not present in court during the time of the ruling.
Kouwenhoven served as an international timber trader who moved his goods in and out of the country. Secretly, he was using this operation as a cover for smuggling weapons in and out of West Africa. This weapons trade blatantly defied the arms embargo that had been placed on the country by the United Nations.
For his actions, Kouwenhoven was convicted and sentenced to 19 years in prison. The court pronounced him guilty for being an accessory to war crimes and for trafficking and selling weapons in Liberia. Kouwenhoven sold these weapons to then-president Charles Taylor. Taylor used these weapons to suppress opposing factions during the country’s civil war. In the process, he committed incredible atrocities. It was not uncommon for him to capture child and use them as soldiers. In other cases, he sold them into sexual slavery. To accomplish this, he used the weapons he obtained from Kouwenhoven to enforce his will.
This is not the first time Kouwenhoven has been in trouble. Previously, he was deported from the United States in the 1970s for attempting to sell stolen Rembrandt paintings.
Global Witness, a campaign group that investigates corruption and environmental despoliation, believes that this conviction is the first time a war crimes conviction has been pronounced for a businessman who profited from selling weapons in this manner. Global Witness supported the prosecution efforts by gathering efforts about Kouwenhoven’s company, the Oriental Timber Company. The Oriental Timber Company was originally cited by Dutch prosecutors in their original filing of charges against Kouwenhoven, which occurred over a decade ago. It took until this point for all the necessary evidence to be gathered in order to convict him.
The case brought against Kouwenhoven was originally filed years ago through the Dutch courts. Kouwenhoven, who was born in Rotterdam, saw his case move through the lower courts and to the supreme court before the case was sent back to the appellate court system for a retrial.
The Oriental Timber Company spearheaded efforts to gain favors from Taylor while he served as president of Liberia. During his time in office, he presided while violent conflicts were erupting. The nation was wracked by warfare as rival militia groups battled one another. These battles eventually spread and filtered into neighboring Sierra Leone. Over the course of the warfare, thousands were killed and thousands more were injured, making this war one of the most violent in the region’s history.
Kouwenhoven was responsible for shipping timber into Liberia during this period. In exchange for the favors and payments granted by Taylor, he secretly ferried caches of weapons with those timber shipments. Between 2000 and 2003, Kouwenhoven supported Taylor’s warfare through these shipments. Taylor went on to use those weapons in armed conflicts with local rebels, but also killed countless innocents during this period. The Dutch judges referred to all of these atrocities during their summary of the ruling.
They also noted the fact that Kouwenhoven continued to admit being responsible for supplying weapons, even with the uncovering of evidence implicating him. As a result, the court felt his conviction would help dissuade other businessmen from attempting to perform similar actions. The court warned that anyone doing business with governments like Taylor’s would be aware that they could be convicted for war crimes. This would hopefully help prevent future actions like the weapons trade Kouwenhoven as engaged with.
Taylor himself was sentenced in The Hague to 50 years in prison for supporting war crimes committed in Sierra Leone and is currently serving out his sentence in a British prison. Global Witness hoped that Kouwenhoven’s conviction would help prevent other businesses from trying to profit off war. This case marked an important moment and set a precedent for holding businessmen accountable for war trade. They noted that Kouwenhoven’s trade of weapons was harmful, but his trade of lumber supported Taylor’s actions as well