Pro Liberian, International Justice Advocacy Groups Petition House of Representatives Not to Endorse Senate’s Proposal to Establish Transitional Justice Commission

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Capitol Hill, Monrovia – A group of Liberian and international nongovernmental organizations have vehemently expressed their opposition to the Senate’s recommendation, calling on the President to set up a Transitional Justice Commission (TJC).   

 In an open letter to the House of Representatives through Speaker Bhofal Chambers, the groups, committed to ensuring justice for victims of serious international crimes perpetrated during Liberia’s civil wars, called on the Lower House not to endorse the proposal.

The organizations include the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia, Independent Human Rights Investigators (Liberia), Global Justice and Research Project (Liberia), Secretariat for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia, Transitional Justice Working Group of Liberia, Liberia Massacre and Survivors Association, Human Rights Watch, Civitas Maxima, The Advocates for Human Rights and Center for Justice and Accountability.

Excerpt of the letter: “We write as Liberian and international nongovernmental organizations committed to ensuring justice for victims of serious international crimes perpetrated during Liberia’s civil wars. We are deeply concerned and would like to express our opposition to the Senate’s recent recommendation, which we understand the House of Representatives will also consider, that the President of Liberia set up a Transitional Justice Commission (“TJC”).”

Instead, the group called on the government to seek international support for the establishment of a war crimes court to prosecute individuals that committed heinous crimes during Liberia’s brutal civil war which claimed the lives of an estimated 750,000 people.

“Now is not the time to delay the prospect of accountability with a new commission. Instead, we are urging the President and legislature to move forward in giving victims access to justice for atrocities committed by requesting assistance from the United Nations and Liberia’s other international partners to establish a war crimes court,” the group requested.

Writing further, they said, by building off the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report’s proposed statute for a court that could try war crimes and other relevant initiatives, such as a draft court statute developed by the Liberian Bar Association, and by calling upon international expertise and assistance for support in conducting war crimes investigations and trials that are consistent with domestic law and international standards, justice for victims of civil wars-era crimes can finally be achieved in Liberia.

The Liberian government has failed to fully implement the TRC recommendations which was submitted more than a decade ago. While the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration implemented some of the ‘soft’ recommendations, which among others things, called for the initiation of a national reconciliation and healing process, it ignored the ‘hard’ ones calling for the establishment of an extraordinary court to try individuals that committed war crimes; and barring some people including former President Sirleaf herself, for bearing the greater responsibilities of the war, from holding public offices for 30 years.

The Sirleaf’s administration contested some of the hard recommendations, and trumpeted restorative justice over retributive justice.

With the emergence of the new administration headed by President George Weah, a football hero and former UN Peace Ambassador, who had supported the creation of the court, many justice advocates were optimistic that the TRC report would have be fully implemented.

However, the President has since backtracked, and like Sirleaf, failed to act. He then requested the Legislature to review the report and advise on its recommendations.

The Senate endorsed the recommendations of its nine-member leadership committee, advising the President to set up the TJC to, among other things, review the TRC report find out why it was not fully and timely implemented, propose solutions, examine the general amnesty law of 2003 under the leadership of former President Charles Taylor for people who played major role in the civil crisis, and explain how to reconcile the national law to international protocols signed by Liberians.

In addition, the TJC will examine the pros and cons of establishing a war crimes court in Liberia, and whether to amend the Constitution to address the many legal issues that could hinder the establishment of a war and economics crimes court.

But the groups, writing Speaker Chambers said, they believe the proposed TJC would subvert the process foreseen by the TRC Act and unnecessarily delay and thwart the establishment of a court to deliver justice to victims of civil wars-era atrocity crimes.

They said at this stage of Liberia’s transition from the civil wars, the TJC is unnecessary and would be duplicative of the role of the Independent National Human Rights Commission “to ensure that all recommendations contained in the Report of the TRC are implemented,” as laid out in section 46 of the TRC Act.

Countering the Senate’s suggestion in its Position Paper that the TRC acted inconsistently with its mandate under section 4 of the TRC Act “to promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” in recommending prosecutions, the group noted that Section 4 of the TRC Act mandated the TRC to “provide a forum that will address issues of impunity,” and expressly empowered the TRC Commissioners to make recommendations to the Head of State as to the “need to hold prosecutions” in section 26. The groups said the TRC did precisely as directed in recommending the establishment of the Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia.  

They also noted that retributive and restorative justice can and should progress in parallel, adding that prosecutions of serious international crimes are required by international law, are necessary for victims to have redress for crimes that were committed, and they can positively impact societies by signaling that such crimes will not be tolerated in the future.

The clarified that trials would inevitably be limited to a small number of higher-level alleged perpetrators due to resource and feasibility constraints, which is part of why they can and should act in tandem with broader accountability initiatives, which offer wider opportunities to promote healing across the population.

The Position Paper attempts to argue that a 2003 amnesty could or should preclude prosecution, but any such interpretation of a prior amnesty would put Liberia squarely at odds with its international obligations to ensure justice for international crimes, they countered.

According to them, they have also found that criminal accountability for civil wars-era atrocities has wide support in Liberia, adding “Individuals, families of the victims, and activists have marched in the streets of Monrovia multiple times in recent years calling for accountability and demanding the creation of a war crimes court.

They recounted that the Liberian Bar Association added its support for a war crimes court in April 2019, and the Traditional Chiefs Council and the National Economic Dialogue – attended by 350 Liberians, including members of the government, political parties, youth, and civil society – backed establishment of a war crimes court in September 2019. And in addition, more than 50 members of the House of Representatives have endorsed a resolution backing a war crimes court for Liberia.

“It is not surprising that those who may have reason to fear the reach of the law are seeking to frustrate criminal accountability. Nevertheless, the Liberian people have the right to see justice done and have waited more than a decade since the TRC recommended that alleged perpetrators of the most serious crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars be fairly tried and held to account.”

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