Liberia: ‘Captain Marvel’ and War Victim Lawmaker Support Establishment of War Crimes Court
The future of a war crimes court lies in the hands of lawmakers. In Part II of this two-part series, Alpha Daffae Senkpeni speaks to two Margibi lawmakers who lived on two different sides of the frontline about their reasons for supporting a war crimes court.
Monrovia – Oscar Cooper and Ivar Jones are lawmakers who are shaping the future of Margibi County. But they both played different roles in its bloody past: Cooper supported a warring faction during the first phase of the Liberian civil war, while Jones was a victim of the conflict.
Report by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, New Narratives Justice Correspondent
Today both of them have shown some level of support for the establishment of war and economic crimes court in the country.
Code Name: ‘Captain Marvel’
“I feel nobody should go away with impunity – even myself, and I have nothing to fear about the coming of the war or economic crimes court to Liberia because I know I have not violated any human rights, and I know I have not committed economic sabotage and I will be willing to put myself up.”– Senator Oscar Cooper, once known as ‘Captain Marvel’
Cooper is used to receiving criticisms from political opponents for his ties to rebel forces loyal to former president Charles Taylor during the Liberian Civil War.
The criticisms against him heightened when he ran for the county’s senate seat in 2011, at which time his opponents referenced a damning Global Witness Report called Bankrolling Brutality. The report released in 2010, accused Cooper’s logging enterprise, Inland Logging Company of benefiting from the conflict.
The Truth and Reconciliation Report recommended prosecution for he and his logging companies’ alleged involvement in economic crimes.
Cooper doesn’t shy away from admitting his affiliation with the Taylor-led rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which was responsible for tens-of-thousands of killings, rapes and a number of massacres throughout the conflict that lasted for 14 years and ended in 2003.
Dubbed ‘Captain Marvel’ during the 1990s, Cooper said he adopted the code name because of the risks associated with traveling at the time, and he “didn’t want to fall into an ambush.”
The NPFL topped as the worst violator among 11 warring factions, yet Cooper denies involvement in any atrocities.
“We supported the NPFL and I am not running away from that, but I didn’t commit any atrocities,” Cooper said.
“Before the war, I was already developed; my mind, my value system was already developed,” he added.
Now a Senator, he says “nobody should go away with impunity” for committing war crimes.
“If the Liberian people want the war and economic crimes court, I will support them,” says Cooper, during an interview in his Capitol Hill office in May 2019.
“I feel nobody should go away with impunity – even myself, and I have nothing to fear about the coming of the war or economic crimes court to Liberia because I know I have not violated any human rights, and I know I have not committed economic sabotage and I will be willing to put myself up.”
Beyond Settling Scores
“It is better for us to correct it now because if they are not corrected, maybe the generation after us will use us as examples … which means our generation will be setting a bad precedent.”– Representative Ivar K. Jones
For Jones, he spent every second of Liberia’s 14-year-of-civil war in the country. As a boy, he stood by and watched his father’s house in Margibi County ravaged by rebel forces
He said that his advocacy for the establishment of war and economic crimes courts go beyond settling personal scores.
Now a Representative of Margibi County District #1, Jones said the court would provide an “antidote to lawlessness and the culture of impunity to move the country forward.”
“There were wrongs committed, there were crimes committed against humanity – I want to say it is based upon that I am supporting the war crimes court,” he said.
“Today, you see a lot of crimes and [drug] addiction of young people, and it is because of the war… if we cannot do something now when will be able to do something?”
He says that prosecuting war criminals would avert a relapse of the country into chaos “put Liberia on a good trajectory to move forward.”
“It is better for us to correct it now because if they are not corrected, maybe the generation after us will use us as examples … which means our generation will be setting a bad precedent,” said Jones.
Heal the Wounds
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, there were 620 statements taken from Margibi County – 254 males and 365 females – with 3,394 victims recorded from 5,154 violations.
But it is still unclear which warring faction committed most of these atrocities within the county.
Advocates calling for the establishment of the court say prosecuting perpetrators would help heal the wounds of the past and reinforce the country’s judicial system.
“I have analyzed over the time that in order to address current human rights issues – challenges that have been faced by society – we must be able to address the past abuses or violations,” said Adama Dempster, head of the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform.
“Those who allegedly committed those atrocities are seated at the top of power and enjoying at the expense of the victims, at the expense of the common people,” he added.
Court Will ‘Correct Some Wrongs’
Despite having fingers pointed at him, Cooper agrees with the activists.
“The coming of the war crimes court will show that people cannot go with impunity and it will start correcting some wrongs and it will put people on the mark that you can’t do what you want to do without giving account,” he says.
“It will help us to move forward – will hold our feet to the fire for us the present and future political leaders.”
Jones says a culture of impunity still reigns.
“Even up to today, there are a lot of economic crimes we have experienced in our country and the only way is to punish the wrongdoers,”
Lobby or People’s Power?
Political lobbying for the passage of a bill at the Legislature to establish the court is still a far cry although it has gained some traction so far this year.
Nine out of 73 representatives, who are members of the House’s Claims and Petition Committee, in July this year signed a resolution supporting a war crimes court.
Many more votes are required to pass the bill at the lower house before it then goes to the Senate for concurrence and signed into law by the President.
Representative Rostonlyn Dennis, who chairs the committee, says they have also cemented a partnership with the Liberia Bar Association to draft a bill calling for the establishment of the court.
“We are in the process now of soliciting signatures and we need 49 signatures for the resolution,” says Dennis, adding at this stage the resolution has a moderate level of political support.
While the backing of lawmakers remains the lifeline of any piece of legislation that would pave the way for a court, Representative Jones thinks popular support from Liberians could ultimately affect the final decision.
“If the people decide that they want a war and economic crimes court, that will be done. It doesn’t have to be dependent on any lobby on the floor,” added Jones, who was elected in 2017.
“For my time I’ve worked in this house, there are some things that come on the floor that doesn’t require lobbying because if the people say we want XYZ definitely it will pass,” he said.
On the other hand, he’s cognizant of the power of legislative maneuvering characterized by lobbying, voting and the numbers.
“There will always be divided views on these issues, but at the end of the day democracy is about the number – and so the majority will have the day,” he says.
For a bill to be passed into law, it must first survive a majority vote in the House and then gets to the Liberian Senate.
However, Senator Cooper is optimistic that when “the bill hits the floor of the Senate and with my people support,” he will back it because “this is a controversial issue but it represents the people, [so] we shouldn’t be hiding from a controversial issue like this.”
Liberia ‘Is not an Island’
The two Margibi County lawmakers have, in separate comments, rejected criticisms linking the support for war crimes court in the country to the work of western countries.
“Liberians should stop depending on the international community,” stressed Senator Cooper. “Let’s depend on ourselves; what is right for ourselves before we start thinking about foreigners and what they say – if the majority of Liberians want the courts it should be done – not to be worried about the influence, let’s do the right things for our people”.
Jones argues that part of the challenges in Liberia’s failure to see its self as part of the international community and its laws and conventions.
“The world is a global village and all countries are interdependent – so we cannot say we as a nation [that is] part of the United Nations and then act as an Island,” said Jones.
Jones said any decision to punish war criminals will send a message that “we are serious about the business of justice in this country.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. The donor had no say in the story’s content.