U.S. Congressional Bipartisan Caucus on Human Rights to Hold Special Hearing on Establishing War and Economic Crimes Court in Liberia

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MONROVIA – While several proposals calling for the establishment of war and economic crimes court have been dangling at the Capitol in Monrovia for years, Congress in Washington seem to be taking on the case of the hundreds of thousands of victims yearning for justice for the heinous atrocities meted and their loved ones during the 14 years of senseless war.

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus of the United States House of Representatives, will today hear a proposal for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court for Liberia.

The Congressional Human Rights Caucus promotes, defends and advocates internationally recognized human rights norms in a nonpartisan manner, both within and outside of Congress, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.

The Caucus noted that President George Weah who had been equivocal with regards to the establishment of the court prior to becoming President of Liberia is now backsliding in his commitment and previous position on the establishment of the war and economic crimes court.

On its website the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission stated, “For the past few decades, Liberia’s people have suffered untold human rights violations while perpetrators acted with near-complete impunity during the country’s multiple civil wars. Between 1989 and 2003, 250,000 Liberians died from the fighting, and thousands more were conscripted as child soldiers, raped, suffered loss of limb, and other traumatic experiences. Since that time, not a single war crimes trial has occurred in Liberia as part of the country’s judicial process.

“The hearing will examine the legacy of Liberia’s civil wars on its people and economy, the structure and likely policy implications of a proposed War Crimes & Economic Crimes Court for Liberia, and grassroots efforts to secure rule of law in the country and meet victims’ needs.”

A Backsliding Weah

President Weah, prior to entering politics, served as the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and led the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration in 2004.

In April 2004, Weah in his role as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador, called for the formation of the court to arrest and prosecute warlords for recruiting and arming children in Liberia.

Weah at time said, 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, he 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,” he said. He added 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.

How the Story Changed

Now as President of Liberia, Weah has repeatedly said while his priority remains reconciling and focusing on reconstruction rather than establishing war and economic crimes court, he would leave it up to the Liberian people to decide. On that note, President Weah in September 2019 wrote the Legislature asking the body to advice on the way forward with regards to the establishment of the court.

“I … 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 [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] report, including the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court,” his September 12, 2019 letter to the Legislature states.

There has been no concrete action from the executive on this quest since then.

Nimba County Senator Prince Y. Johnson, known for the commission of some of the most heinous crimes during the war is a close political ally of President Weah. 

Many believe that President Weah’s sudden shift of position on the formation of the court is only intended to protect his few political allies who would be prosecuted when the court is established.

Senator Johnson who vehemently resists the establishment of the court provided Weah massive support in his vote rich Nimba.

“The hearing will examine the legacy of Liberia’s civil wars on its people and economy, the structure and likely policy implications of a proposed War Crimes & Economic Crimes Court for Liberia, and grassroots efforts to secure rule of law in the country and meet victims’ needs.”

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

The U.S. Embassy recently rebuked the Liberian Senate for electing Sen. Johnson to head the Senate Committee on National Security owing to his records of gross human rights abuses and war crimes.

Senator Johnson, and Representative George Boley who is also a member of the House of Representatives, have expressed no regret for their activities during the war.

The irony of Mr. Johnson’s civil war atrocities is often based on his justification that Samuel Doe and his Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) killed innocent citizens of Nimba. Thus, he and his men had to fight to defend the people of Nimba. However, a lot of those killed by Johnson and his INPFL were civilians, and not combatants. More importantly, a lot – if not all of those victims were not involved in any atrocity against the citizens of Nimba. Some were arrested and executed in Monrovia by Johnson or his forces.

TRC Ignored

Despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s conclusions that atrocity crimes and serious violations of international law were committed, the Liberian government continues to waver over the creation of a recommended war crimes court to hold perpetrators to account. Some see an accountability mechanism as an essential step for Liberia to heal from the wounds of the past and to address Liberia’s culture of impunity. Others, however, worry that a court will reignite old tensions, that it could be misused for political purposes, and that it would be too costly given Liberia’s struggling economy.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which operated between 2006 and 2009, recommended creating a war crimes court – the Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia – to try those responsible for grave crimes committed. Many of the TRC’s recommendations, including for the war crimes court, have never been carried out.

The few cases involving civil wars-era crimes have all occurred outside Liberia before United States and European courts. Authorities have been pursuing cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to try international crimes committed abroad, as well as for crimes related to immigration, such as lying on immigration forms.

Last Friday, a Swiss Court in Bellinzona sentenced ex-ULIMO commander Alieu Kosiah to 20 years imprisonment for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia.

A court in Finland is also expected in the coming months to announce verdict for ex-LURD General Gabriel Massaquoi for war crimes in Liberia. Gabriel’s trial was a landmark trial in Liberia’s quest for the establishment of war crimes court as the court moved to Liberia and Sierra Leone to hear testimonies of witnesses and victims.

These testimonies were heard at undisclosed locations in Monrovia and Free Town.

Several Calls for War Crimes Court

Over the last few months, both political actors, civil society activists and human rights defenders have been mounting calls for the establishment of war and economic crimes court.

Alexander Cummings, the political leader of the opposition Alternative National Congress (ANC) said, Pres. Weah’s lackadaisical response towards the mounting calls for the need to end impunity and hold people accountable for war and economic crimes makes one believe that he is either benefiting from the criminals or seeking special favors from them.

“Giving people justice and ending impunity are not issues over which any responsible government ought to wait to be publicly chastised by international partners. These are things responsible governments do to cleanse the soul of a nation and to keep countries secure, stable, and peaceful,” Cummings said.

Mr. Musa Bility, chairman of the opposition Liberty Party, at the Press Union of Liberia special event of the Edward Wilmot Blyden Forum echoed the need to end impunity. He said that is his party’s position.

“I am asking all political parties including the ruling party to shun those who are being accused of war crimes. You came to power as a result of a people desire for change; do not let those people down. Do not use your party as biding for shielding people who have murdered other people. I can assure you that 2023 Liberty will not carry anyone accused of war crimes on our ticket, be it president, Senator or Representative,” Bility said.

The Liberian Civil War

The First Liberian Civil War was an internal conflict in Liberia from 1989 until 1997. The conflict killed about 250,000 people and eventually led to the involvement of the Economic Community of West African States and of the United Nations. The peace did not last long, and in 1999 the Second Liberian Civil War broke out which lasted until 2003.

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