Liberia: UN Human Rights Office Urges Legislature to Pass Bill Seeking War and Economic Crimes Court in Liberia

OHCHR-Liberia’s Head of Programs, Dr. Sonny Onyegbula has called on the Legislature to pass into law a bill supporting the establishment of war and economic crimes court in Liberia

Tubmanburg, Bomi County – The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Liberia has called on the Legislature to pass into law a bill seeking the establishment of war and economic crimes court in Liberia.

The draft bill was crafted by the Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA) and is seeking the establishment of the court to prosecute individuals accused of gross violations of human rights, serious humanitarian law violations and certain domestic crimes.

The OHCHR-Liberia made the appeal at the start of a nationwide consultation with traditional and local leaders in Tubmanburg, Bomi County, which was aimed at garnering support toward the establishment of the court in Liberia to ensure accountability and justice for crimes committed during Liberia’s civil strife.

Speaking on behalf the OHCHR -Liberia Country Representative, Uchenna Emelonye, the Head of Programs, Dr. Sonny Onyegbula thanked the LNBA for the level of patriotism in carving the bill and pledged the UN Human Rights office’s unflinching support to the process leading to the full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, especially the establishment of a war and economic crimes court in Liberia.

“Since Liberians have decided among other things for the establishment of Economic and War Crimes Court, OHCHR will support the process as long as it meets international human rights standards,” Dr. Onyegbula said.

“At this point, we thank the LNBA for their patriotism in producing the draft bill for the establishment of Economic and War Crimes Court. We use this opportunity to appeal to the honorable members of the legislature to review the draft bill and adapt it to their legislative process. This is important because Liberians have spoken loud and clear that it is what they want. It behooves on the legislature to carry out the mandate of Liberia people.”

Gov’t Laissez-fair Approach 

Although President George Weah continues to renege on his promise of holding those who committed heinous crimes during the war accountable, the call for justice and accountability continue to reverberate throughout every nook and cranny of the Liberian society- from Capitol Hill to city halls, and from coffee shops to street corners.

Long before his election in 2018, and in his capacity as UNICEF Ambassador, President Weah called for creating a court to try crimes committed during the civil war.

At a conference in 2004, Ambassador Weah said, “Those who armed the children and committed heinous crimes against them should be brought to book.”

Such a court, Weah said should identify, locate, arrest, and prosecute the warlords who were responsible for crimes against humanity.

And before becoming President, Weah’s political party, the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), backed the prosecution of people responsible for grave crimes.

Ironically, since his ascendancy as President of Liberia, Weah has not taken any action to ensure justice for past war crimes.

Efforts to initiate the process suffered a major setback when the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bhofal Chambers ceased a resolution calling for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court in Liberia.

The resolution had already met the required two-thirds majority signature and was set to be passed when the Speaker took the unprecedented decision, much to the dismay of several lawmakers who including Rep. Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis (District #4, Montserrado County) and Larry Younquoi (District #8, Nimba County) who were among those who championed the legislative piece.

Despite these setbacks, significant strides are being made to ensure that justice is served.

At the Legislature, several influential lawmakers including Deputy Speaker Prince Moye and former House Speaker, Edwin M. Snowe are backing the move to set up the court in Liberia.

Receiving a petition by a group of war crimes court and human rights advocates recently at the Capitol Building, Deputy Speaker Moye vowed to work with the champions of the resolution calling for the setting up of a war crimes court to ensure it is placed on the House’s agenda for action.

“This is just a reminder because we have received more than 50 signatures to put back that resolution on the agenda for possible actions,” he told the petitioners.

Rep. Dennis, who is credited for being one of the lawmakers pushing for the court, vowed to spearhead the reintroduction of the resolution on the agenda for approval by plenary.

It is glaring that the Liberian people want to end the culture of impunity, and nothing can stop that,” she said.

Several mass gatherings have been held recently in support of the court, while the Legislature has flooded with petitions from citizens calling for the establishment of the court.

Evidence is the recent petition submitted to the Legislature by a group of citizens led by war and economic crimes court advocates Emmanuel SaviceFubi Henries.

“We are not begging, we are demanding [the establishment of war crimes court] because if not, there will be another war in Liberia. And we don’t want that,” he said.

“We came to remind you of the civil war and, impunity because when I look left I see the office of Senator Prince Johnson, when I look right, I see the office of Rep. George Bolley. I see economic Vampires. The House of Representatives has done nothing about the war crimes court.”

Senator Johnson and Rep. Bolley of Grand Gedeh County are two of several Liberians indicted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to face prosecution for atrocities they committed during the war.

Savice, who was later arrested and detained for breaching Presidential Security protocols, vowed to assemble at the Legislature every two months until the legislature yields to their request.

The National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia (NACCEL), headed by Chief Zanzan Kawor, in September 2019 also petitioned President Weah and his Government to establish a war and economic crimes court in Liberia to prosecute perpetrators of war and economic crimes to deter future occurrence.

History of the Draft Economic and War Crimes Bill

Meanwhile, the sustained call for justice and accountability come at the time the UN Human Rights Office opened in Liberia, and under its ‘Accountability’ pillar, OHCHR-Liberia has been providing support to ensure that the recommendations of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are implemented.

These supports are given through the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), CSO-HRAPF, Transitional Justice Working group (TJWG) and the Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA).

OHCHR, in 2018 and 2019 provided financial assistance to the LNBA in its conferences in Buchanan and Kakata, where members of Liberian Bar discussed issues of accountability and the TRC recommendations.

LNBA members in these conferences voted overwhelmingly in support of the establishment of Economic and War Crimes Court, pledging their professional service for its realization.

Similarly, OHCHR, in collaboration with the Center for Development and Democracy (CDD), supported INCHR in May 2019 to conduct a two-day national colloquium that brought Liberians from all backgrounds to discuss the way forward on implementation of the 207 TRC recommendations. 

This colloquium proved to be a significant milestone as Liberians at the event unanimously agreed that the Government should implement the TRC recommendations including establishing Economic and War Crimes Court.

The LNBA was mandated by Liberians to develop a draft bill for the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court. The bill has been drafted by the LNBA and is awaiting enactment into law by the Legislature.

The Tubmanburg Dialogue

Meanwhile, the two-day consultation in Tubmanburg, Bomi County brought together cross-session of local chiefs and traditional leaders from Bomi, Gbarpolu, Grand Cape Mount and Montserrado Counties, and focused on ensuring accountability and justice for past crimes.

The event, held under the theme; “Effects to Address Past Human Rights Violation at Regional Levels in Liberia,” was organized by the CSO Human Rights Platform and the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia, with support from OHCHR-Liberia.

Organizers say the public outreach is the first of five regional consultations that are expected to take place across Liberia to get the traditional people’s views and understanding on the culture of impunity.

Dr. Onyegbula welcomed the public consultation and said it will be pivotal in dispelling the myths and misconceptions associated with the establishment of Economic and War Crime Courts.

“Among the falsehood are that once the court is established anyone that took part in the Liberian war will be sent to prison and that such establishment will plunge Liberia into another civil war. These are not true statements as only persons that bear the greatest responsibilities for atrocities committed during the time will face justice, he debunked.

“Similarly, child soldiers do not bear any responsibility because they were under direction of a Commander who should account for their action. Many countries have established similar courts and underwent justice processes but it did not lead to any war. Sierra Leone is a very good example.”

Speaking earlier, Adama K. Dempster, Secretary-general of the Civil Society Organizations and Human Rights Advocacy Platform, said the inclusion of the traditional leaders and local chiefs in the process of ending the culture of impunity in Liberia was vital as they represent a large segment of the society.

Dempster added that since the TRC ended its work ten years ago, nothing has been done to address the culture of impunity.