By: Alvin Weagar Yelloway*
The 14-years’ civil conflict (1989-2003) ravaged the economic, social and political landscapes in Liberia. Nearly 250,000 persons lost their precious lives as a result of the conflict, which was perpetrated by warring factions and their leaders; but hostilities ended since 2003, followed by the formation of an interim government the same year. The nation held its first post-war presidential and legislative elections in 2005, which ushered in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President in 2006. This was followed by the holding of two successive presidential and legislative elections in 2011 and 2017. As a result of these, the country has enjoyed 15-years of uninterrupted peace which makes one to wonder, whether the perpetrators of the worst forms of human rights violations are immune from prosecution?
In an effort to investigate, determine the truth, identify the root causes of the civil conflict, and to determine those who are responsible for the commission of odious crimes, the National Legislature of Liberia established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in June 2005. Article IV of the TRC Statue outlined its mandate to include: documentation and investigation of the massive wave of human rights violations that occurred in Liberia during the period 1979 – 2003, identification of victims and perpetrators of the conflict, and creation of a forum to address issues of impunity.
The Commission was influential in the fulfilment of its mandate and reported the collection of over 22,000 written statements, conducted several dozens of personal interviews and collected over 500 live public testimonies of witnesses, actors, perpetrators, and direct victims from the 15 political sub-divisions of Liberia and the diaspora. In the end, the Commission submitted a comprehensive report to the People of Liberia, the Government of Liberia and the International Community after a little over three years (2006-2009) of work with financial support from Liberian taxpayers, the United Nations, the European Union and other generous governments.
At sections 12-14, Volume II of the Consolidated Final Report of the TRC, the Commission recommended establishment of an extraordinary criminal tribunal, prosecution of war criminals, public sanctions for some officials, reparations to victims, amnesty, and a palava hut peace building mechanism to foster peace, dialogue and national reconciliation.
Nine years since the TRC submitted its report, successive governments have taken little or no action to prosecute war criminals. Captivatingly, other countries have made tremendous strides to end impunity. At the end of a turbulent civil conflict (1991-2002) in Sierra Leone, a country that borders Liberia to the west; Sierra Leone established a Special Court (hybrid) in 2002, which indicted, convicted and sentenced dozens of perpetrators (rebel leaders) who committed, aided and abetted the worst crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone, including a former Liberian elected dictator Charles Ghankay Taylor. The world witnessed a new era when the United Nations Security Council in November 1994 passed a resolution for the establishment of an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda with the sole purpose to prosecute perpetrators of the crime of Genocide, which was orchestrated in Rwanda between January to December 1994. The Tribunal indicted, convicted and sentenced scores of perpetrators to prison, before it concluded its mandate in 2012.
While efforts were made by Sierra Leone and Rwanda to punish people who committed atrocities, Liberia has not made any significant progress to establish a specialized court in order to prosecute war criminals. On October 18, 2018, the local media in Monrovia quoted Liberia’s Foreign Minister as calling for a referendum in order to determine the establishment of a war crimes court. While one cannot fathom the minister’s dark statement, we are constrained to declare that his statement is a flagrant outrage to victims (some of whom are in mass graves) of the civil conflict and their families who yearned for justice every day; while they see former warlords occupying lucrative positions of trust in the country, which is equivalent to torture. While the raison d’etre of the Foreign Minister’s statement is ambiguous, the 1986 Constitution of Liberia (at Article 34e) empowers the National Legislature to constitute courts inferior to the Supreme Court of Liberia; to include specialized courts which are deemed necessary for the proper administration of justice throughout the Republic.
We hold the passionate view, that the newly inaugurated President of Liberia; George Manneh Weah, who is viewed as the messianic leader and his Foreign Minister may not have homology on the establishment of a specialized criminal tribunal. By contrast, Weah needs to prove to the world by taking effective action in establishing a specialized criminal tribunal. In September of 2018, when Weah addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN), he reaffirmed his nation’s commitment to the values of the UN, which include: international peace, security, human rights and justice. To ensure that human rights and justice are entrenched in Liberia, Weah must urgently establish a specialized criminal tribunal in order to prosecute those who committed the worst forms of atrocities, end the culture of impunity and validate pundits’ assertion that the best way to promote and protect human rights is to prosecute people who are responsible for the 14-years civil conflict.
It is important to note, that amongst former Presidents Taylor and Sirleaf and current President Weah; the only leader who could weather the storm to establish a specialized criminal court in Liberia is Weah, simply because it is ubiquitous that there is no prima facie or circumstantial evidence which explicitly or implicitly linked Weah to the 14-years bloodbath in Liberia, unless Sirleaf and Taylor who were outrageously indicted by the TRC Report for financing, aiding, abetting and committing atrocities during the 14 years civil conflict.
The failure by Weah to establish a specialized criminal tribunal will be a replete contradiction of his much touted Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development which he launched on October 27, 2018. Pillar 3 of the Pro-Poor Agenda enumerates a more peaceful, unified society that enables economic transformation and sustainable development through ending fragility and the root causes of conflict, ensuring access to justice, rule of law and human rights and complying with international, regional, and human rights standards.
Weah does not find himself in a dilemma, or a quagmire or least to say a state of ambivalence. Nonetheless, Weah finds himself on a trajectory to eliminate the culture of impunity in Liberia by establishing a specialized criminal tribunal which will prosecute, convict and punish former warlords who are responsible for the worst atrocities the country has ever experienced. The benefits that come with prosecuting and subsequently convicting former warlords is that the victims and their families will appreciate justice and it will curb future mayhems.
Finally, the establishment of a specialized criminal tribunal is not at the discretion of Weah; it is a constitutional and statutory imperative. Morally, Weah owes his 2017 electoral victory to the more than half million young people who voted him to power; only because they saw in him an indomitable will and agenda to prosecute former warlords, who gifted them with a miserable and poverty stricken childhood years. Failure to expeditiously establish a specialized criminal tribunal and subsequently prosecute former warlords, who planned and executed the 14-years’ turmoil in Liberia, will only reveal that Weah’s administration is craving for the nation’s reverse to anarchy. Weah will never appreciate such anarchy, because he is so obsessed to reform and rebuild Liberia from abnormality to prosperity; under the rubric of his Pro-Poor Agenda.
*Alvin Weagar Yelloway is a Swedish Institute (SI) Scholar, a Liberian Human Rights Attorney, and currently pursues a Master of Laws in International Human Rights Law at the Faculty of Law, Lund University. The views expressed in this article do not reflect this paper or institutions he affiliates with.