Liberia: Despite President Weah’s Ambivalence, War Crimes Court Almost a Done Deal

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Duport Road, Paynesville – The scars of the 1990 civil war are still fresh for Monday-Ma Ben – Washington. Just 20-years-old when her little sister was shot in the head and killed by rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, Washington returned to the killing fields, Thursday, now the site of a shrine built in memory of thousands of Liberians massacred during the long-running civil war.


Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected] & Henry Karmo, [email protected]


“They killed everyone. . .  she was the last person.  I remember the rebel saying that day, ‘my last gunshot cannot go in vain’ “and my sister was shot in the head.”

Crying Not Enough to Save Sister

Washington, like many Liberians had trekked to Duport Road to seek refuge. “When the war started, we went to live with our father until one-day for the first time we witnessed someone being killed by a gun. We saw the rebels bring two men who were short and struggling to die.”

Washington recalls that the longer the war lingered, the more normal it became to see such damning images of death in the midst of a brutal war.  “Where we are now was a village”, she lamented pointing to the Duport Road shrine hosting the bones of victims from the massacre.

Chronicling the moments leading to her sister’s death, Washington recalled:  “One day, a lady amongst the rebels identified my younger sister whom she said she had quarreled with before the war, and because of that my sister was arrested and taken to the rebel base. On the first arrest, she was released and again they arrested and the next day; we heard her crying amongst several others in buses, her crying didn’t last long,  and she was shot in our presence in the head since that day we left the village in fear.”

On Thursday, Washington says she was gripped with mixed emotions. “I am happy that they are talking about establishing a war crime court to give some us of justice for the loss of our relatives.” 

It was here on  Duport Road, Thursday, that a working committee of the lower house of the National Legislature, led by Representative Larry Yanquoi(District No. 8, Nimba County) came to officially endorse the establishment of a war and economic crimes court and submit its recommendations to President George Manneh Weah, who over the past 72 hours, has been triggering controversy over his position on the establishment of a war crimes court.

President Flip Flops on Court Issue

Prior to his departure for the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, the President won international praise for submitting a letter to the legislature, seeking advice on the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations that include the setting up of a war crimes court, marking the first-ever step toward addressing the legacy of its 14-year civil war that killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced more than a million. 

Said President Weah: “As President of the Republic of Liberia, I am committed to a holistic implementation of the National Consensus (recommendations of the dialogue) and do hereby call on the National Legislature to advise and provide guidance on all legislative and other necessary measures towards the implementation of the TRC report, including the establishment of war and economic crime courts,” President Weah said in a letter to Speaker Bhofal Chambers. The President added that “accountability of past human rights violations are essential ingredients for sustainable peace and achievement of inclusive development”. 

The President’s communication drew admiration from civil society and human rights organization, both at home and abroad. “President Weah’s support for a war crimes court is an important step for victims and for helping to ensure the violence that brought so much pain and loss to Liberia will not happen again,” said Adama Dempster at CSO Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia and the Secretariat for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia. “This decision benefits the victims, the country, and the rule of law in Liberia.”

As President of the Republic of Liberia, I am committed to a holistic implementation of the National Consensus (recommendations of the dialogue) and do hereby call on the National Legislature to advise and provide guidance on all legislative and other necessary measures towards the implementation of the TRC report, including the establishment of war and economic crime courts.”

– George Manneh Weah, President, Republic of Liberia

Hassan Bility at Global Justice and Research Project and the Secretariat for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia, chimed: “In the past few years we have made significant progress in cases abroad to try alleged perpetrators of Liberia’s wartime crimes. But our people should have the chance to see justice at home. Liberia should work with the United Nations and other international partners to set up a court that can hold fair, credible trials.”

Upon his return home this week from the UNGA however, the President changed his tune, suggesting that he had never public called for the establishment of the court and was in fact, more concerned about fixing the country’s dwindling economy. 

“Since we came to power, I have never one day called for the War Crimes Court. You, the journalists called for War Crimes Court, Liberians are calling for war crimes court, both the victims and perpetrators are calling for war crimes court,” said President Weah.

President Weah had earlier told world leaders at UNGA that his government is a “listening administration” and will pay keen attention to its people as it relates the prosecution of people accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Said the President: “What I have discerned from their cries is that it is important to bring closure to the wounds from the 14 years of Liberia’s brutal civil war, and that we need to agree on a mechanism that would guarantee the sustenance of peace, stability, justice, and reconciliation, as well as enhance our prospects for economic recovery.” 

In his address, President Weah also expressed concern about the incessant pressure piling on his administration for the establishment of War and Economic Crimes Court as compared to his predecessor, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

President’s Current Position Contradicts ’04 Stance

Ironically, in 2004, at the peak of his football career, Mr. Weah, then a United Nations Ambassador, made international headlines when he called for the formation and establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia to arrest and prosecute all “warlords” for recruiting and arming children in Liberia.

Weah argued at the time that 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.

Addressing a news conference held at the UNICEF-Liberia headquarters in Monrovia on 23rd April 2004, Mr. Weah made specific reference to warlords who forcibly recruited, trained and armed the Liberian children to participate in the 14-year arms conflict. “Those who armed the children and committed heinous crimes against them should be brought to book”, the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador noted, adding that those to be prosecuted include warlords and military commanders of the various belligerent groups who, for their own selfish gains, brought children into the conflict.

For Rep. Yanquoi, who himself was among the many who sought refuge on Duport Road during the war, the die has already been cast, even if the President appears ambivalent about his stance. 

“We are supposed to have 49 signatures but we have 51 now – with still an opportunity for a few to be added before we close Friday. So, we didn’t feel we needed to sneak it under the floor of the House; we wanted to publicize the work that we have done especially in the wake of ambivalence of the President who haven’t told the Liberian people that he was prepared to take action by writing the plenary to advise him as to the implementation of the TRC report, including the establishment of the war crimes court.”

The lawmaker said the resolution has been months in the making. “Since May last year, one year five months, the plenary of the House received two petitions – from a cross section of Liberians, one calling for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court and one calling not to establish one. So, the plenary and the joint committees comprising claims and petition, judiciary and governance and governance reforms. And so, since then we have been working and there have been series of consultations held with the assistance of some of the pro-human rights groups and partners and today we have culminated the work into a resolution.”

Rep. Yanquoi said he is in awe that most people who are in favor were happy that the President had said something that they all wanted to hear – but are now baffled at his sudden ambivalence. “Now apparently, he said it to appease Liberians on his way to the United Nations General Assembly. Unfortunately, on his way back on Tuesday, he made a statement that made Liberians to feel that if something is not done, the war crimes court situation will elude us. So, we who have the matter at hand, have an obligation to make sure that the court is established and that the legislature should not be used as a scapegoat. Even when he went to the UN General Assembly he said to the international community, ‘I’m prepared and opened to the establishment of the court. To now, come and ask Liberians why now is unbelievable.”

The lawmaker averred that the best way to show the world is to say “we want a war and economic crimes court.”

“We are supposed to have 49 signatures but we have 51 now – with still an opportunity for a few to be added before we close Friday. So, we didn’t feel we needed to sneak it under the floor of the House; we wanted to publicize the work that we have done especially in the wake of ambivalence of the President who haven’t told the Liberian people that he was prepared to take action by writing the plenary to advise him as to the implementation of the TRC report, including the establishment of the war crimes court.”

Larry Yanquoi, Member of the House of Representatives, Liberia

Yanquoi: ‘Almost a Done Deal’

Rep. Yanquoi said lawmakers will be putting the resolution on the floor before the close of session Friday. “So, that Liberian people will know that the House of Representatives has taken a decision and we know that the Senate will concur and we will give a resounding yes to the president to go ahead and establish the court. If he needs a copy of such law from this committee, we are blessed with a copy which we have been vetting, even with the support of other people that have vast knowledge in it. So, our gathering here is to tell the world that the joint committee has completed its work and has spoken to colleagues, more than 52 persons have signed on it. So, it’s almost like a done deal.”

Thursday’s symbolic gesture was a welcome relief for Representative Yekeh Kolubah(District No. 10, Montserrado County), a former child soldier who has been a strong advocate for the establishment of the court.  “I am here to support the coming of the War Crimes Court and we will do all we can to ensure that the court evolves in this country. We heard our President asking why now because we were amused by some of the very people especially President George Weah. This is why we want the court so that we can tell the people how President Weah supported Model. All the football he played he supported us to bring war. Any attempt for this President to stop the War Crimes Court, we want them to arrest him to show the reason why he doesn’t want the War Crimes Court.”

For the residents of Duport Road, returning to the scene of the massacre brought back painful memories. 

John Fahn, a senior elder in the community, who has lived in the area for 30 years, justice is at hand for the many friends, loved ones and relatives lost in the war.  

John Fahn, a senior elder in the community, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said, justice, is at hand for the many friends, loved ones and relatives lost in the war.  “They killed people because of their tribe… I saw dead bodies. After the war when ECOMOG came, because of the hunger, they hired people to collect skeletons and remains of people killed in the war for two cups of rice. We collected bones and skeletons from all around Duport Road and buried it here.”

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