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Liberia: Time to Begin A Serious Conversation about A War Crimes Court

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Mr. Yacoub El Hillo, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Liberia

AT A NATIONAL COLLOQUIUM on the Implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Recommendations report held in Gbarnga, Bong County last week, Mr. Yacoub El Hillo, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Liberia made a poignant point of stating that the implementation of the TRC’s findings is one of the essential channels of achieving long lasting peace and fostering full reconciliation.

THE UN ENVOY averred that for the gains that have been realized to be sustainable, grievances from the past must be addressed. “The series of conversations that will take place in the colloquium from today will hopefully contribute to this. I therefore urge all participants to be frank, constructive and solution oriented, bearing in mind that the overarching need for peace, stability, progress and economic development of Liberia can only be sustained if Liberians speak out and dialogue on how to heal the wounds of the past.”

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST time that an international stakeholder has sounded the trumpet on Liberians to take the issue of the establishment of a war crimes court in Liberia seriously.

TO DATE, Liberia has failed to bring any of those who committed atrocities during the civil war to justice for the grave crimes committed during its two-armed conflicts.

IRONICALLY, THE ONLY CASES involving alleged perpetrators of war from Liberia have been prosecuted outside the country’s shores in the United States and European courts where authorities have been pursuing cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to try international crimes committed abroad by non-nationals against other non-nationals. They have also brought cases for crimes related to immigration, such as lying on immigration forms about involvement in abuses in Liberia.

THAT LIST IS GROWING by the day. In 2008, a United States federal court convicted the son of former President Charles Taylor’s son, Chuckie, who ran the Anti Terrorist Unit (ATU) of torture. US courts also convicted the former ULIMO leader, Mohammed Jabbateh, and the NPFL spokesman, Jucontee Thomas Smith Woewiyu, for fraud and perjury related to their failure to disclose to US immigration authorities their involvement in alleged wartime crimes. Moses Thomas also faces a civil lawsuit in the US, where victims filed a complaint against him for allegedly ordering extrajudicial killings, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

IN 2014, BELGIUM authorities arrested Martina Johnson, former commander of the NPFL, for her alleged role in war crimes. In 2017, United Kingdom authorities indicted Agnes Reeves Taylor for her alleged role in torture in Liberia between December 1989 and January 1991. In 2018, French authorities arrested Kunti Kamara, a former ULIMO commander, in Paris for alleged war crimes committed in Liberia. On March 26, 2019, Swiss authorities announced the indictment of Alieu Kosiah, a former ULIMO commander, for international crimes. These cases have yet to proceed to trial.

FORMER PRESIDENT Charles Taylor is currently serving a 50-year sentence in a UK prison after being found guilty in 2012 for committing war crimes during the long-running civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Judges at a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague said his leadership role and exploitation of the conflict to extract so-called “blood diamonds” meant he deserved one of the longest prison sentences handed down so far by the court. Mr. Taylor, was found guilty of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes against humanity when supporting rebels between 1996 and 2002 in return for conflict gems. The offences included murder, rape, sexual slavery, recruiting child soldiers, enforced amputations and pillage.

CASES BROUGHT AGAINST perpetrators have been spurred by civil society efforts, including collaboration between the Monrovia-based Global Justice and Research Project and the Geneva-based Civitas Maxima, and by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability.

BESIDES THE UN, the European Union, the United States of America and others have previously reminded the current administration headed by President George Manneh Weah about the importance of pushing for the establishment of a war crimes court in Liberia.

Last year, local and international nongovernmental organizations came together to campaign for justice in Liberia and presented a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee in July on the need for trials of past crimes in Liberia. The Liberian Bar Association has also added its voice in support of a war crimes court.

LAST JULY, The UN Human Rights Committee called for the Liberian government to report back within two years on its progress to ensure that those accused of human rights violations and war crimes are prosecuted.

AFRICA’S OLDEST Republic was plagued by wars – between 1989-1996 and 1999-2003, characterized by widespread and systemic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Domestic and international human rights groups, foreign embassies, the media, and the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) identified summary executions, massacres, rape and other forms of sexual violence, mutilation and torture, and forced conscription and use of child combatants among the numerous abuses.

Crimes were committed by members of all the parties to the conflict including the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), ULIMO-K, ULIMO-J, Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Liberian Peace Council (LPC), the government of Liberia (including various security forces), militias and the government-backed Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU), Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model), Lofa Defense Force, and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).

THIS IS WHY WE wholeheartedly welcome last week’s colloquium and embrace the UN envoy’s assertions that the program provided an excellent opportunity for all to discuss a mutually agreeable mechanism to bring closure to the past. “This colloquium is an opportunity to add the voice of the United Nations to the conversations taking place on accountability, reconciliation and peace consolidation in Liberia. Excellences, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen Liberia so far has enjoyed 15 years of uninterrupted stability crowned by the successful completion in March 2018, of an extended peacekeeping period,” Mr. Hillo noted.

IT IS SAD THAT in Liberia today, many of those who committed atrocities against Liberians, maimed scores and killed the families, friends and loved ones before their very eyes are the very ones enjoying the fruits of Liberia’s post-war peace with lofty jobs and lucrative benefits.

WHILE SOME of Liberia’s key partners are doing a great job of bring some of those residing in their respective countries to book, it is long overdue for Liberia to take charge and begin a serious conversation about the establishment of a war crimes court.

AS THE UN ENVOY PUT IT LAST WEEK. “This mechanism need not come from outside and need not be set up outside. It can be right here, led and owned by Liberians. As long as it is in conformity with international standards and as long as it is credible in the eyes of the victims and their families and the public at large.”

LIBERIA MUST be grateful to the UN, the EU, the US and other partners, particularly our neighbors in the West African sub-region who sacrificed their citizens to help restore peace and sanity to our shores but at the same time, we ourselves must be able to take charge of our destiny and our identity.

WE MUST SHOW the world that we mean business, that we are a serious nation, willing and ready to send a clear message against impunity.

WE CANNOT AND SHOULD not allow known perpetrators of war to roam Liberia with impunity. We cannot and should not allow known killers who gun downed friends, families and loved ones in cold blood for simply belonging to a particular tribe, religion or social class, We must not and should not allow the rest of the world to laugh at us while we sit idly by and allow the blood of those who died to go in vain.

IMPUNITY IS WRONG and Liberia must let the rest of the world know that it will not be tolerated here. The conversation is long overdue.

AS MR. HILLO POINTED OUT last week. “For any country to attain enviable heights among the comity of nations, there must be sustainable peace. “And sustainable peace means that the probability of using destructive conflict, oppression and violence to solve problems is so low that it does not form part of any party’s strategy, while the probability of using cooperation, dialogue and collaborative problem-solving to promote social justice is the norm.”

THE UN ENVOY COULD not have said it any better. It is time for Liberia to stand and be counted on the establishment of a war crimes court.

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