Liberia: President Skips Truth & Reconciliation Commission Event in Gbarnga


Gbarnga, Bong County – President George Weah on Thursday failed to attend the opening of a conference on the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) here, the second he has not turned out at an event held by the Independent Human Rights Commission.  

Report by James Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent

The program sheet reflected that he was supposed to deliver a special statement and perform the opening ceremony of the colloquium at 12 mid-day but was deputized by Olayee S. Collins, Deputy Minister for Research and Development Planning at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. 

There was no reason given for the President’s no-show. The first time he did not attend an IHRC event was a dedicatory ceremony for the Maher Memorial in Bomi County on Decoration Day, observed on March 14 this year. 

The President’s comments were hugely anticipated by organizers of the three-day National Colloquium on the Implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as civil society activists prepare for a mid-term report on Liberia at the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which has set July next year for Liberia to address gross human rights violations committed during the country’s civil war (1989-2003).  

President Weah has not shown political will to set up the court. He has formed an alliance with the National Patriotic Party of former President Charles Taylor and enjoys a power bloc with Senator Prince Johnson, one of the “most notorious perpetrators” of the war, according to the TRC, and has appointed other warlords such as Chris Farley, Superintendent of Grand Gedeh County. 

In November following his return from France, President Weah called on Liberia to choose between peace and reconciliation, and war crimes court. 

Adama Dempster of the National Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform that is collaborating with the IHRC to hold the conference said it was “disappointing” that President Weah did not show up. 

“We have not had any formal excuse, we have not had any formal communication giving ground for why the President is not attending this national colloquium,” he said in an interview with FrontPage Africa. “This national colloquium is tied to the governance of this country. This national colloquium has a great way to get Liberia sustaining the peace,” he said. “This national colloquium is a great platform where most Liberians who are victims of the civil war can get redress.” 

Abdul Tejan-Cole, a former prosecutor of the Special Criminal Court for Sierra Leone has told the FrontPage Africa in an interview on the margins of the gathering that Liberian war crimes court would have to make sure not to make the mistakes of the Special Court for Sierra Leone if it is established. 

Tejan-Cole said the decision to set up a court or not lies squarely in the hands of Liberia, but said it just needed to look across the border for tips to set up the court. 

“I think there are lots of lessons Liberia can learn from Sierra Leone process of transitional justice,” he said. “I think you can learn from the way our special court was set up, the way it was structured, the way it was composed,” added. He said Liberia would need to make sure has more Liberian nationals working with the tribunal in senior positions than the number of Sierra Leoneans who worked with the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  He added that the country would also have to guide against too many Liberians working with the court, referencing the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia that came in for criticism of for siding with former Khmer Rouge operatives who had switched alliances. The TRC recommends the Liberian have judges appointed by the President of Liberia, the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations. 

The Liberian Civil War (1989 – 2003) was one of the 20th Century’s bloodiest armed conflicts, with estimated 250,000 people killed. The TRC in 2009 called for an extraordinary criminal tribunal to try more than 100 alleged perpetrators of the war. However, almost a decade after the TRC report, not a single individual has been tried and only a handful of its more than 200 recommendations implemented so far. 

The colloquium is a three-day event organizers say will look into ways how the TRC recommendations can be implemented by creating awareness, looking at challenges, brainstorming alternative models, and getting the government of Liberia to comply to national and international laws that support the recommendations, including the court. 

Tejan Cole warned Liberia against setting up a very costly court such as the one in Sierra Leone, which cost the Special Court US$300 million to prosecute nine people after it had initially budgeted for US$75,000. “I think there are ways you can save resources, way you can save money that when the court is set up you can be more efficient,” he told FrontPage Africa.  

Those against the court have argued it would cost Liberia too much money it could spend on development processes, but Tejan-Cole dismissed the argument. “I think the price of justice can never be evaluated. I think it is important to punish those who committed atrocities. I think it is important to let people see that for their actions there is a price to be paid. I don’t think you should just look at the financial cost alone. There are a lot of other costs that you need to look at,” he said. “What kind of message are you sending to the victims? What kind of message are you sending to those who rights were abused, whose rights were violated?” He asked rhetorically.  

He said arguments that retributive forms of justice such as the prosecution of alleged persecutors were untrue. “I don’t think courts are retributive… in the true sense of the word,” he said. “Courts can help with reconciliation. Courts can help with healing. Courts can help with brining society together. Those who have committed atrocities must realize that there is a price that they have to pay for the atrocities that they’ve committed. “It is not about retribution. It is about accountability.” 

But the occasion survived a no-show, however, with speeches from the United Nations, the Swedish Embassy and the African Union. 

Prosper N.N. Addo, the Representative of the African Union said impunity undermines reconciliation as disrespect of the rule of law, calling on civil society to constructively engage the government of Liberia.  

Elizabeth Harleman, the Swedish ambassador, called for Liberia to put into place measures against any repercussion of the establishing a war crimes court. 

Yacoub El Hillo, UN Resident Coordinator, said that the UN believes implementation of the TRC recommendations would lead to lasting peace in Liberia. “Grievances of the past must be addressed,” he said 

And Representative Dorwohn Twain Gleekia of Nimba County District #6 said, “The TRC recommendations must be implemented in its totality”. He said that if the recommendations had been heeded it would have been easy to make people to account for US$25 million infused into the economy by the government, which an inquest earlier this year found was not accounted for. 

Gbarnga is a formiliar place for discussion on reconciliation. Bong County suffered the most casualties of the civil war, according to the TRC report. Gbarnga was the headquarters of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the 1990s. It was in the same Administrative Building here that then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf reacted to the TRC report in 2009 during the 162nd Independence Day anniversary. 

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.