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Liberia: Civil war reparations’ proposal must be more practical and less ambiguous

Dounard Bondo
By Dounard Bondo

Dounard is a Liberia-based journalist. His writing covers politics, law and entertainment. He also writes short stories. He has a degree in international law and diplomacy.

Posted on Thursday, 26 August 2021 10:25

A former child soldier who received the Journey Against Violence (JAV) Program poses for a picture in front of his business center in Mabaclay, Liberia, July 3, 2016. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

18 August 2003 marked the official end to Liberia's 14-year civil war. But 18 years on, no one has been prosecuted by the Liberian state for war crimes committed during its civil wars.

The 2009 recommendations from its truth and justice commission which included prosecution for war criminals and reparations for victims were not implemented.

In 2021, a Swiss court exercising universal jurisdiction awarded seven plaintiffs CHF50,000 in damages against Alieu Kosiah, a warlord in Liberia’s civil war. That has been the closest form to reparations that war victims have received.

Recent reparations recommendations

In 2021, the plenary of the Liberian senate voted to assent to the proposed recommendations of the senate leadership on war crimes. These recommendations come as a reply to a 2019 request to the legislature by President Weah to advise and provide guidance on all legislative and other necessary measures towards the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, including the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court.

The senate-proposed recommendations include the “establishment of a reparation trust fund aimed at restoring victims and communities worst affected by the conflict.”

While the move is well-intentioned, I believe certain steps are needed to be taken to ensure that the reparations proposal is more practical and better implemented.

Who are the victims?

At first glance, one cannot help but notice that both the senate and TRC recommendations do not clearly define who a victim is, thus they do not clearly define who is eligible for said reparations.

Liberia’s conflict is one that engulfed the whole nation, with effects on the entire population, and so nearly every Liberian in Liberia during the civil war can claim victim status.

There are also questions the government needs to address, like the complexities of individuals such as child soldiers who occupy both victim and perpetrator status.

The proposal also targets victims “worst affected” by the conflict. During the Liberian war, atrocities like rape, massacres, torture and other human right violations were commonplace. Thus, terms like “worst affected” are ambiguous when used in the context of the war.

The government would need to set a definite criterion to define who the targeted victims are, as a lot of people can claim to be among the “worst affected”.

There are also questions the government needs to address, like the complexities of individuals such as child soldiers who occupy both victim and perpetrator status. Would they also qualify for reparations when some of their victims might not qualify?

How much is needed?

Secondly, the senate recommendations advise the government to set up a reparation trust fund with an initial $2.5m contribution and then seek private and corporate donations domestically and internationally.

However, the senate recommendations do not state the exact figure targeted to effectively implement a national reparations program. The proposed $2.5m as an initial donation by the government is also a far cry from the $500m reparations fund which was recommended by the 2009 TRC report.

National reparations programmes require extensive resources in funding and administration. In Sierra Leone where a similar reparations program was implemented, the programme ended up being cash-strapped.

Despite a $3.5m grant from the UN, less than 50,000 individuals benefited from the programme, with some getting as low as $100 in interim relief. Should the government fail to get significant external funding, the reparations proposal in Liberia would suffer a similar fate.

It is also worthy to note that with the Covid-19 pandemic, Liberia – a poor country – might prioritise the current health crisis instead of funding reparation proceedings. Additionally, with a high poverty rate and the fact that most of the biggest private businesses (as calculated via tax payments) are foreign companies, local donations might not be significant enough to adequately help fund reparation efforts, leaving external sources as the major source.

Foreign intervention

Foreign courts have prosecuted at least five prominent actors of the Liberian war. Recently, the US, one of Liberia’s biggest donors and developmental partners, condemned the election of Prince Johnson (a former warlord turned senator) as head of the senate committee on defence.

The essence of reparations shouldn’t just be an express payment for wrongs inflicted, but the government should recognise the wrong, and make efforts so as to prevent the wrong from happening again.

Senator Johnson subsequently resigned. The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus of the US House of Representatives, also had a hearing on the establishment of a war crimes court in Liberia.

Seeing as the reparation proposal comes along with the proposal of the establishment of a transitional justice commission in place of legal prosecutions of war criminals, it is yet to be seen as to whether foreign governments and international agencies would donate much-needed funds if the reparations programme is implemented.

Reparations should be geared towards going hand in hand with justice. The essence of reparations shouldn’t just be an express payment for wrongs inflicted, but the government should recognise the wrong, and make efforts so as to prevent the wrong from happening again.

Thus, the government’s issuing of reparations while perpetrators of war crimes face no element of repercussion for their actions should be reconsidered.

Any justice?

Lastly, the fight for resources like land, and the unequal access to social, economic and political power were among the root causes of the war.

These issues still exist in some form today. It was not until 2018 that Liberian laws significantly addressed issues surrounding community land through the passage of its 2018 land rights act. These issues need to be addressed so as to prevent the reoccurrence of the war and for reparations to make a considerable impact.

While the recommendations are not binding, President Weah has assured the Liberia Senate that his government will give timely and due considerations to the recent recommendations. And for many victims of the war, in the light of the senate recommendations, it looks like reparations might be the only kind of justice they get.

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