Liberia: 18 years later and still waiting for a war crimes court

By Dounard Bondo

Posted on Tuesday, 6 July 2021 19:57, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 01:45
Liberia's President George Weah attends the plenary session of the Paris Peace Forum on November 12, 2019 in Paris. Credit:Blondet Eliot-POOL/SIPA

Over 250,000 people were killed in Liberia’s civil wars from 1989 to 2003 – but no one, to date, has been tried for war crimes in the country.

On 17 June, a Swiss court sentenced Alieu Kosiah to 20 years’ imprisonment for crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars.

It was the first time a Swiss court tried war crimes in a non-military court. Kosiah’s sentencing follows the conviction by foreign courts of several others in involved in the country’s civil war.

Finland tries Massaquoi

Gibril Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean and former spokesman for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), is on trial in Finland on charges on war crimes committed in Liberia.

Massaquoi’s case points to the complexity of prosecuting these cases: he has earlier been granted immunity for providing some of the critical evidence needed to convict Charles Taylor, the warlord who started Liberia’s civil war in 1989, and several other fighters.

Massaquoi’s immunity covered only crimes committed in Sierra Leone, where the RUF was established, and not neighbouring Liberia.

The list of others caught up in foreign court cases related to Liberia’s war includes:

  • President Charles Taylor, convicted by Sierra Leone’s Special Court;
  • His son, Chuckie Taylor, convicted in the United States on charges of torture committed in Liberia.
  • Mohammed Jabbateh and Thomas Wowieyu were convicted in the United States for fraud after omitting references on their immigration applications to their roles in Liberia’s civil war.

Foreign efforts to prosecute militia leaders and others in Liberia’s civil war is convoluted and complex. It can be difficult for foreign courts to establish their jurisdiction, track down witnesses and build credible evidence.

Special court needed

Liberia needs a special court to hold to account those most responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and also for other related economic and political crime argues Aaron Weah: “It is important to establish a war crimes court to not only bring justice for wartime atrocities, but to also ensure justice for post-war corruption and to address impunity”.

After he backed a war crimes court when running for office, President George Weah has now left it to the legislature to decide on whether there should be a special war and economic crimes court.

Under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 2006. After holding hearings it published its final report and recommendations in 2010.

It called for a special war crimes court and the barring of individuals linked to factions during the war from seeking office for 30 years. That list included several senior politicians, senators and the president herself. So the recommendation was set aside. The TRC report was never implemented.

The Senate leaders’ report favours a restorative justice approach to a war crimes court. It ads that ‘… the TRC was intended for restorative and not retributive justice’.

After he backed a war crimes court when running for office, President George Weah has now left it to the legislature to decide on whether there should be a special war and economic crimes court. Having lived through decades of bad governance, many Liberians want to see such a body established.

Different civil service organisations and the Liberian Bar Association (a trades union for lawyers) presented a draft bill to the legislature to establish a war crimes court. Two of the four biggest opposition political parties back the idea.

ICC help?

In debates on the issue in the legislature, the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives also supports it, but wants to involve the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

Last month, leaders in the Senate proposed that a Transitional Justice Commission be set up. Its task would include analysing and investigating the findings of the TRC and finding out why its recommendations have not been implemented.

The Senate leaders’ report favours a restorative justice approach to a war crimes court. It adds that “… the TRC was intended for restorative and not retributive justice”.

Suacoco Denis, in the House of Representatives, disputes this interpretation and wants more powers for the body: “….the proposed transitional justice commission would not bring a war crimes court, and it’s a political move to safeguard votes.”

Were a war crimes court to be established, there would be political ramifications. Two ex-warlords — George Boley and Prince Johnson — named in the TRC report are sitting members of the legislature.

Senator Prince Johnson, who ran his own militia during the civil war, represents one of the most populous counties and is in a political marriage with the president’s ruling party.

  • Johnson says that politicians calling for a war crimes court won’t get votes from his county.
  • He also claims immunity from a legislative act of 2003 but the body that passed that law was part of a transitional government.
  • As of 6 July, he has reportedly resigned from his post as chairman for the committee on national defense, intelligence, security and veteran affairs of the Liberian Senate. One reason for his resignation is to avoid putting the army and the Liberian Senate at loggerheads with the US.

Foreign interest and pressure

Many local activists argue that more foreign interest and pressure can push the case for the court. Liberia’s budget and elections are largely funded by foreign partners.

  • In 2021, the Finnish court trying Gibril Massaquoi for war crimes moved to Liberia for some months to hear witnesses and visit war-time massacre sites. It was the first time a court trying war crimes was held in Liberia, and it stoked interest in a war crimes court.
  • In May, the United States embassy released a statement condemning the election of Senator Prince Johnson to the Senate Committee on Defence. The US embassy said it could  “…have no relationship with Senator Johnson”, citing claims of rights violations in the war.
  • In June, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan group in the US House of Representatives, also held hearings on the establishment of a war crimes court in Liberia.

Witnesses before the hearing called for the US to assert political pressure on President Joe Biden to establish a war crimes court.

According to Ibrahim Nyei, a Liberian researcher and political analyst: “[…] Foreign interest is important to the push for the establishment of a war crimes court because Liberian politicians ordinarily might not have incentive towards establishing a court, especially in light of political interests.”

Bottom line

This week, the Liberian senate is set to hear expert’s opinions on its proposed recommendations for a transitional justice commission. This, as supporters of a war crimes court and victims look on and hope for justice at last.

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