Monrovia – When President George Manneh Weah was serving as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2004, establishing a war crimes court for the prosecution of warlords and perpetrators of heinous war crimes in the country was of paramount concern to him. The trend, however, has drifted now that he’s the President.
In that capacity, Weah, the soccer star at time campaigned massively, especially at the international level for justice for poor victims of the war and at the same time lamenting the recruitment and arming of children as fighters.
In April 2004, Weah was invited by UNICEF to participate in the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration (DRRR) program. At a news conference at the UNICEF-Liberia headquarters in Monrovia he said, “Those who armed the children and committed heinous crimes against them should be brought to book”.
President Weah, passionate about seeking justice for victims of the war at the time, said the tribunal, when established, should be given the authority to identify, locate, arrest and prosecute all those who committed heinous crimes during the devastating and bloody war in the country.
Fourteen years on, Weah is President but not much has been heard from the him regarding the establishment of the war crimes tribunal neither the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, which have been languishing since 2009.
CDC Changes Stance
His political party – Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) – thinks establishing such a court now would be detrimental to the country’s fragile peace.
But the CDC, while in opposition, vehemently called for the prosecution of warlords who participated in the 14-year bloody civil war.
The CDC prided itself as having clean hands, often noting that none of its leaders were associated with the war, at the same time, advocating for the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations.
In a rather summersaulting move, the chairman of the ruling CDC, Mulbah Morlu said now is not the right time for such moves—enforcing the TRC’s recommendations or establishing a war crimes court.
Mr. Morlu’s comments were in response to a recent call made by the United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed who visited Liberia in late March.
Morlu: “We campaigned for the unhindered implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations to be implemented.”
“We were traded from one prison to another in the presence of international institutions they never spoke.”
“My greatest challenge came when a Deputy UNSG called for the need for the implementation of the TRC report. I respect her but I remember in 2006 when we paraded with casket for the implementation of the TRC we are denied.”
Mr. Morlu continued: “Why are we calling for the implementation of the TRC report when UNMIL is leaving?
"We had the opportunity to implement that report when UNMIL was helping to provide security. Our security is in its struggling stage."
"We have constrains of logistics and training and at the very departure program of the UNMIL, is the day she is asking this President to implement the TRC report?”
The ruling party chairman expressed fear that there are individuals still around who are indicted in the TRC report and any attempt to prosecute them could return the country to another crisis.
“In as much as I want that report to be implemented that’s what I campaigned for. But I will not support it to be implemented at the detriment of national security because there will be no court when there is war.”
Reconciliation Far Fetched – Weah
In June 2009, the TRC found all sides responsible for serious violations of domestic and international law, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, widespread and systematic rape and sexual slavery, torture, use and recruitment of child soldiers, and mass executions of civilians.
The report also recommends the establishment of an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of serious violations of international criminal and humanitarian law; the only prosecutions to date have been outside of Liberia.
As President, Weah believes that reconciling Liberians would be a tough task, stating recently that many programs aimed at total reconciliation had failed.
“True reconciliation is still illusive and far from being achieve. Throughout this time, there has been numerous reconciliation conferences producing so many roadmaps to peace and so many policy documents and programs but the problem of political, economic and culture division still exist,” President Weah said during the recently held National Peace and Reconciliation Conference.
“These local voices will come from the ordinary people who became frontline soldiers during our wars, whose communities were destroyed, children raped or used as instruments of death.
“It will come from people who are living with postwar trauma, from people who were wounded or crippled both mentally and physically. These are the real victims of our conflict,” he added.
TRC Recommendation Still Vital
But some actors of the international community believe the implementation of the TRC recommendations would be a giant step towards reconciling Liberians.
During her visit to Liberia late March, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, told the media that lasting peace in Liberia would be dependent on the full and true reconciliation.
She said it was "critical to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and for the legislature to pass key bills that will support local inclusion and reconciliation."
She warned that peace would "remain fragile as long as people feel excluded from the economic and political life of the country, and as long as corruption undermines confidence in institutions".
Shortly after his inauguration, President Weah received a communication from some 20 African and Liberian-based Human Rights Groups urging him to prosecute war crimes, which engulfed the country.
The groups called upon President Weah, "to fulfill Liberia's obligations to investigate and prosecute wartime atrocities."
Like EJS Weah’s Hands Are Tied
Ex-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stands criticized of failing to implement the recommendations of the very TRC she set up to probe war crimes and rights abuses linked to 1989-2003.
Key recommendations by the TRC include a compensation scheme should be created alongside a dedicated war crimes court.
It also called for barring actors of the war from public office for 30 years, Madam Sirleaf was booked by this recommendation, having admitted to giving former warlord Charles Taylor US$10,000 but for humanitarian purpose.
The recommendations were never implemented during her regime. Many pundits say implementing the recommendations would have been like Madam Sirleaf shooting herself in her own leg.
President Weah who championed the establishment of war crimes court heavily relied on the popularity of the likes of Senator Prince Y. Johnson of vote rich Nimba County, responsible for the gruesome murder of former President Samuel K. Doe and indiscriminate killings of several Liberians, for his presidential victory.
Pundits say President Weah’s choice of Madam Jewel Howard-Taylor as Vice President could make almost impossible the consideration of the TRC recommendations.
Howard-Taylor’s ex-husband, former President Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year jail term in the United Kingdom for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) in 2016 formed a grand coalition with Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP) and disgraced former Speaker J. Alex Tyler’s Liberia’s People Democratic Party (LPDP). Weah has since joined ranks with many of former President Taylor’s allies.
During the height of the political activities leading to the election, Weah admitted to speaking to ex-president Taylor via mobile phone, but said it was only out of courtesy.
Vice President Taylor vowed to bring the Taylor agenda back on the table in their government.
To date, President Weah has not made any definite statement regarding the implementation of the TRC recommendations nor the establishment of the war crimes court.
An estimated 250,000 people died in the back-to-back 1989-2003 conflicts.