Liberia's Trials: The challenge of forging a lasting peace

After a 14-year civil war in which more than 300,000 people lost their lives and a third of those who survived became refugees or were displaced, the Republic of Liberia is attempting to come to terms with its painful past through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Modeled on a similar and successful program in South Africa, such commissions have been attempted throughout the world and are now being established in Canada and Kenya. A key question concerning Liberia is whether something more will follow the commission and, if so, what that should be.


The specific question is whether a war crimes tribunal will be established either within Liberia or under the auspices of the International Criminal Court at The Hague to deal with some of the grave human rights abuses revealed by the testimony of survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If nothing more were to follow and if an amnesty were granted, it would have to be partial, because the most serious war crimes and crimes against humanity would be subject to international jurisprudence and prosecution.

In the first part of its final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission states that during the civil war there occurred “egregious” domestic crimes, “gross” violations of human rights and “serious” violations of humanitarian law perpetrated by unnamed individuals. With respect to various militia factions and military units involved, it distinguishes between “significant violator groups” and “less significant violator groups.” Among the last individuals to testify before the commission was President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who admitted initial sympathy with Charles Taylor and his rebel party, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, but then said, “I have absolutely not supported any warring faction and none of them can say I supported them.”

Catholics in Liberia, including their three bishops, have argued that both amnesty and a juridical process should follow the work of the truth commission. In 2004 the Catholic Bishops Conference of Liberia, in their statement Liberia at the Crossroads: Hopes and Challenges, called for a war crimes tribunal to deal with the “culture of impunity” that is “so pervasive in our national life” (No. 11). More recently the bishops’ conference has issued a clarification, explaining that while they fully support the truth commission, they reject a war crimes tribunal.

It is easy to see why the hope of reconciliation would be attractive to the bishops and many others who long for national unity after so many years of internecine violence. The truth commission process offers Liberians an opportunity to review in detail their dark history between 1980, when a violent coup led by Samuel Doe and a small group of soldiers toppled the elected government of William Tolbert, and 2003, when the Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed in Ghana after 14 previously unsuccessful attempts by the West African community to end the war and stabilize the region. Ordinary people have listened attentively to the hearings on radio, visited the commission Web site, read about it in the newspapers or attended the hearings in person. Hearings usually are open to the public. A novel feature of Liberia’s reconciliation process is that the commission traveled to the United States and took testimony in Minneapolis from Liberians who had fled the fighting by emigrating to the United States.

Flagrant Impunity

While vivid, painful and tearful truth from victims was voiced often at the hearings, the truth was carefully nuanced and partial from the lips of the warlords who chose to testify. They expressed very little remorse, let alone contrition. Behind their caution lurked the specter of eventual legal jeopardy. All had made use of child soldiers during the civil war, and the present trial in The Hague of the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga precisely and solely for this crime has reportedly troubled them greatly.

With the notable exception of the Taylors, father and son—the former on trial since 2006 in The Hague at the Special War Crimes Court for Sierra Leone, the latter sentenced in a Miami court in October 2008 to 90 years in prison—the warlords and other combatants have given the word “impunity” new meaning. They have not retired to private life but have taken prominent places in the community. Prince Yormie Johnson, the head of the breakaway faction of Charles Taylor’s National People’s Front of Liberia and allegedly the murderer of Samuel Doe in 1990, has been elected to the Liberian Senate. He has publicly warned Liberians that there will be trouble if anyone tries to arrest him. Alhaji Kromah of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Ulimo-K), has a teaching position at the University of Liberia. Edwin Snowe Jr., a son-in-law of Charles Taylor and formerly a key minister in his government of “Greater Liberia,” is an elected member of the House of Representatives and was formerly House speaker. Combatants, especially former child soldiers, have been offered special educational opportunities not available to other Liberians who suffered at their hands.

Whether the Special Criminal Court for Sierra Leone could be expanded to include Liberia and then to issue further indictments for war crimes is not known.

When Justice Threatens Unity

The most important argument against a recommendation to the government that a war crimes court be established within the Republic of Liberia is the fear that this would further harm national unity. Among the 16 ethnic communities in Liberia, four were both targets of human rights abuses and perpetrators in response. The Gio and Mano tribal brothers and sisters of Thomas Quiwonkpa, who was accused of treason by Samuel Doe, suffered genocide-like retaliation over many years by soldiers loyal to Doe who belong to the Krahn and Mandingo communities. Many members of Charles Taylor’s armed militia belonged to the Gio and Mano; over time they took their revenge on the Krahns and Mandingos. If members of these four communities were indicted for war crimes or crimes against humanity, the concern is that they would perceive it as unjust scapegoating. Many Mandingos, who are Muslim, are already disaffected because they have not yet been able to recover their homes in Nimba County, which they abandoned to the Gios during the war. Indictments by a war crimes court would make matters worse for them.

Catholic social teaching prefers the “transformative justice” approach of the truth commission, without ruling out the “retributive justice” of a war crimes tribunal. The Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” called peace an “enterprise of justice” and said that while the church “points out the authentic and noble meaning of peace and condemns the frightfulness of war, the Council wishes passionately to summon Christians to cooperate, under the help of Christ the author of peace, with all men in securing among themselves a peace based on justice and love and in setting up the instruments of peace”(No. 77). What is not clear is whether Liberia can achieve long-term “peace based on justice” without making use of judicial processes as “instruments of peace.”

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