Monrovia — Back in 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission caused a firestorm when it recommended a 30-year ban from politics for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and more than 50 political leaders and financiers of different warring factions’.
“It’s too late for that. Most of [them] have already been elected by their people. And at this stage, having been elected, they have been positive forces, despite their backgrounds” – President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in a Foreign Policy Magazine Interview
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia was appointed in February 2006. It is mandated to investigate gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law as well as abuses that occurred during the period from January 1979 to 14 October 2003.
Although the TRC is not a judicial body, it has an important role to play to contribute to justice through investigating past crimes and recommending individuals for prosecution.
That recommendation was followed by a 2011 ruling by the Supreme Court of Liberia which declared the TRC decision unconstitutional, dealing a lifeline and clearing a major legal hurdle for those contesting office, including President Sirleaf.
The Court said Article 48 of the Act establishing the TRC, as well as Section 14.3 of the TRC’s report containing the recommendations, is unconstitutional. Article 48 of the Act mandates the TRC to recommend to the President of Liberia the implementation of recommendations coming from the TRC, while Section 14.3 of the TRC report recommends that several politicians, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, be banned from holding public office for 30 years.
In its ruling, the supreme court said the TRC’s recommendation ‘is an option’, noting that “banning several individuals, including President Johnson Sirleaf, without their right to due process in keeping with law, is a clear violation of the Liberian Constitution”.
Seven years later, the issue has been resurrected with President Sirleaf who is no eligible to seek a third term, telling the influential U.S. publication, Foreign Policy that it is too late to disqualify anyone who was a major figure in the civil war from politics.
Sirleaf, who says she doesn’t plan to endorse any of the candidates vying to succeed her, is quoted as saying: “It’s too late for that,” she said.
“Most of [them] have already been elected by their people. And at this stage, having been elected, they have been positive forces, despite their backgrounds.”
Sirleaf during a 2008 appearance before the TRC acknowledged making a $10,000 donation to support Charles Taylor’s insurgency in 1990.
The admission was a key reason why the TRC recommended her ban from politics.
Although the ban was never enforced, the debate continues to linger and dividing opinions on both sides of the aisle.
Amnesty International in a 2013 report lamented: “Most of the 2009 recommendations of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were yet to be implemented. These included establishing a criminal tribunal for prosecuting crimes under international law, as well as other legal and institutional reforms, and recommendations relating to accountability, and reparations.”
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan remarked in 2003: “There are times when we are told that justice must be set aside in the interests of peace. It is true that justice can only be dispensed when the peaceful order of society is secure. But we have come to understand that the reverse is also true: without justice, there can be no lasting peace”
Amnesty has been consistent in its assertions that implementing the TRC findings is a key step to ending impunity in Liberia.
“The government of Liberia is under a legal obligation to investigate and prosecute all persons reasonably suspected of serious human rights violations, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.
However, in the five years since the conflict ended, Liberian authorities have not yet taken any measure to concrete step to ensure the prosecution of serious human rights violations committed during the conflict. Liberia has not enacted the necessary legislation defining war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances as crimes under Liberian law. No victim and witness protection unit has been established.”
Despite the controversial TRC remark, Sirleaf is poised to oversee the first democratic transition in 30 years; when a democratically-elected President will turn over to a democratically elected President after the 2017 Presidential and legislative elections.