San Francisco, CA – Leading Liberian justice activists met with international experts on war crimes trials in San Francisco on Friday to discuss ways to push for a war crimes trial in Liberia.
Massa Washington, the former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Hassan Bility, of Global Justice Research Project and former Minister Kofi Woods, lawyer and human rights activist, met with Ambassador Stephen Rapp, Special Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and Ambassador David Scheffer U.N. Secretary General’s Special Expert on United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials and U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues along with representatives from Civitas Maxima, Center for Justice and Accountability, Human Rights Watch and others.
Also present were LC Wright and Nelson Thayer, the US Assistant District attorneys who successfully prosecuted last year’s case against Mohamed Jabbateh for immigration fraud related to war crimes committed during Liberia’s first civil war.
Prosecutors Wright and Thayer are also prosecuting the case against Thomas Woewiyu, former Defense Minister under President Charles Taylor, which will begin in Philadelphia in June.
‘A Good Sign’
The session was closed to the media but after the meeting participants were enthusiastic about the gathering and the support shown by the international community for a court in Liberia.
“It’s a good sign that Liberia is back on the agenda of the international human rights community,” said Mr. Woods.
“And we intend for it to continue so we can work together to bring justice to the many victims of the human rights community.”
The Liberian attendees reiterated their belief that a widespread distrust in leadership in Liberia stems from the impunity that has plagued the country since its founding but particularly since the civil wars which left as many as 250,000 people dead and destroyed the country’s infrastructure.
“We must seek to end the scourge of impunity in Liberia,” said Mr. Woods. “This is an important step in trying to think through the central questions and act together on this issue.”
Hassan Billity, whose work with Global Justice Research Project and Civitas Maxima was crucial to the cases against Jabateh and Woewiyu as well as a recent civil case against Thomas Moses, with the Center for Justice and Accountability for the Lutheran Church massacre, was also enthusiastic about the gathering.
“I’m happy that our international partners are joining us in our push for the creation of a war crimes tribunal and I believe the Liberian people will support this,” Bility said.
“I believe that president George Weah will also support this.”
President Weah’s support would be crucial for a War Crimes court in Liberia.
He may also be called upon to consider the extradition of Liberian citizens to trials held in other countries around the world if cases are made against them.
Mr. Woods said his work with the ECOWAS court was also discussed as an alternate option to prosecutions in Liberia or those being held in the Europe and the US.
“This will help to reinforce some of the work we are doing to work with the ECOWAS court in the region,” he said.
“We being to promote awareness around the court to promote litigation in the court, so that lawyers around the region that we can be able to support the initiative of the court in west Africa especially on human rights.
“I look forward to the day when we’ll be able to approach ECOWAS on issues regarding the duty of our nation as a west African state of those alleged perpetrators of human rights violations.”
The conference comes in the backdrop of recent push to bring perpetrators of Liberian civil war to book for crimes committed during the long-running civil war.
While Liberia has taken steps toward truth-telling, no effort has been made toward holding to account those responsible for atrocities committed during its two civil wars.
Following his inauguration as President, President Weah received a letter from the watchdog group, Human Rights Watch in which he was urged you to put justice, accountability, and strengthening rule of law institutions at the very top of his agenda.
“Specifically, we encourage you to revisit the issue of justice for past crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars, notably by invigorating plans for trials of civil wars-era crimes in order to bring justice to the victims, punish the perpetrators, and strengthen respect for the rule of law,” HRW wrote.
Recognizing how far Liberia has come in advancing post-conflict stability, HRW said securing justice is crucial to sustaining the peace dividends Liberians have worked so hard to realize.
Liberia’s brutal armed conflicts (1989-1996 and 1999-2003) were characterized by the commission of widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
Liberian citizens were subjected to horrific abuses including summary executions; numerous large-scale massacres; widespread and systematic rape and other forms of sexual violence; mutilation and torture; and large-scale forced conscription and use of child combatants.
The violence blighted the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, displaced almost half the population, and virtually destroyed the country’s infrastructure.
Few Convictions So far
In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report concluded that all warring factions were implicated in serious abuses.
The TRC specifically recommended a hybrid international-national tribunal for the atrocities tragically illuminated during its public hearings, including massacres, mutilations, sexual violence, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Most of the efforts to bring alleged perpetrators of war to book have come from outside. Among them: The conviction of former ULIMO leader Mohammed Jabbateh in the United States — for fraud and perjury related to his alleged wartime crimes in immigration-related documents — is just the latest in a series of foreign proceedings that have prompted a renewed expectation of justice in Liberia.
This past June, the United Kingdom indicted Agnes Reeves Taylor for her alleged role in torture committed during Liberia’s first civil war.
These criminal investigations are still ongoing. In 2008, Chuckie Taylor was convicted for torture in a US federal court.
Finally, in 2015 Michel Desaedeleer, a Belgian-American businessman, was detained in Belgium for his participation in the trade of blood diamonds in Liberia.
He died before his trial was due to start in 2016.