Liberia: Jitters About War & Economic Crimes Court as US Global Criminal Justice Ambassador Arrives; Resolution Looms

Monrovia – Ambassador Beth Van Schaack is making her second trip to Liberia in five months. If her last trip is any gauging point to what will unfold this week when she meets with key stakeholders in Liberia, the point advisor to the US Secretary of State on issues relating to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, will have her hands full in what is poised to be a critical period in the US effort to bring perpetrators of Liberia’s civil war to justice: A major turning point toward the establishment of a War and Economic Crimes Court. 

By Rodney D. Sieh, rodney.sieh@frontpageafricaonline.com

For Ambassador Van Schaack, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has some useful recommendations to address war crimes and atrocities. “We encourage those in positions of power to look very carefully at those recommendations. It is never late to dispense justice. The individuals who suffered the crimes are still calling for justice and those who represent them should look into those calls,” the ambassador said back in October.

Timing is Everything

In December 2009, the TRC completed its final report containing findings, determinations and recommendations made by the Commission to the National Legislature. The report contains major findings on the root causes of the conflict, the impact of the conflict on women, children, and the generality of the Liberian society; responsibility for the massive commission of Gross Human Rights Violations (GHRV), and violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), International Human Rights Law (IHRL) as well as Egregious Domestic Law Violations (EDLV). 

Liberia’s civil war began in 1989. Though most violence ended in 1997, renewed clashes in 2003 drew international attention, and led to the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force to the country. An estimated 150,000 people – one in twenty Liberians – died in the conflict which involved widespread killing and rape of civilians and forced recruitment of child soldiers.

In 1989, Charles Taylor led an incursion from the northeast, marking the start of the civil war. Taylor had cultivated the external support of Burkina Faso, Libya, and Côte d’Ivoire, and his internal support came mainly from Gios and Manos. After just a few months of fighting, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) split from Taylor and the NPFL. The INPFL assassinated President Doe in 1990 but fighting continued between Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), the NPFL, and the INPFL.

Timing is everything. The ambassador’s visit comes on the eve of a significant turn in the quest for justice for victims of the civil war.

Rep. Sumo K. Mulbah (Independent, District No. 3 Montserrado County) will be putting a resolution on the floor of the lower house this week, calling for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court for Liberia.

Confirming the plan to FrontPageAfrica at the weekend, Rep. Mulbah, the resolution’s sponsor, revealed that he will be one of several key stakeholders meeting with Van Schaack on the issue.

Besides Mulbah, the ambassador is also expected to hold discussions with Vice President Jeremiah Koung, House Speaker Fonati Koffa and a host of other key players regarding the ongoing effort to establish the WECC.

This year marks 21 years since the end of its civil wars through the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement and to date, the only steps toward criminal accountability have been cases prosecuted abroad. Among them, the US federal conviction of Charles Chuckie Taylor, Jr. for torture committed in Liberia, convictions for crimes committed during Liberia’s first civil war by former rebel commanders Alieu Kosiah, in Switzerland, and Kunti Kamara, in France as well as a pending case in Belgium.

There are also US federal convictions on immigration violations, fraud, and other crimes that are linked to underlying abuses in Liberia, of Jungle Jabbah” and the late Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu.

Separately, George Boley was deported from the US to Liberia in 2012 due to his alleged role in the use and recruitment of child soldiers and other abuses; Until the last elections, Boley was a member of the lower house of the national legislature. His loss means he is no longer protected from facing any imminent prospects for accountability.

Additionally, a civil suit in the United States seeking remedies for one of the single worst incidents during Liberia’s wars, the 1990 Lutheran Church massacre, was successful, but the defendant fled and now resides in, Liberia where there are no current accountability prospects. According to the watchdog group, Human Rights Watch, some survivors have brought a suit at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice for Liberia’s failure to pursue justice for crimes during the massacre.

Diplomatic stakeholders are quietly expressing concerns that such an office has not been set up since the President took office.

Civitas Maxima, the Swiss-based group which has been tracking perpetrators of the civil war and bringing them to justice, in an Op-Ed recently published by FrontPageAfrica believes that just because there has been no accountability in Liberia, it does not mean that there has been no justice for Liberians. “We at Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) have been at the forefront of it, working hard to document atrocities, coordinate with investigators and lawyers, and to provide information to national authorities, so that if there is evidence against an alleged perpetrator residing abroad, this could be tested in a court of law. Almost 21 years have passed since the end of the second civil war, and in these years 15 individuals have faced proceedings related to the wars that destroyed Liberia. We have facilitated 11 of these cases, in 6 different countries, and across 2 continents. If not at home, at least abroad some victims found some justice.”

Why US Matters

The strong ties between Liberia and the United States are a key reason a lot of investment is being made in Africa’s oldest republic, the traditional stepchild of the US. The strong historical ties between the two countries, a fact recently heralded by US Representative Chris Smith (GOP, New Jersey) who declared: “Liberia is unique among all other countries of the world. There is no other country whose history is so intertwined with that of the United States, founded as it was by free American slaves.”

The Global Criminal Justice office is one of many initiatives the US has instrumented in ensuring that those responsible for the war answer to the people of Liberia. The US has offered crucial support for justice, including technical, financial, and political support for domestic, hybrid and international justice mechanisms. Recent reports suggest a whopping budget of US$200 million has been set aside to jumpstart the Liberia War and Economic Crimes Court agenda.

In this regard, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in a statement back in 2021 noted that the US’s support for the rule of law, access to justice, and accountability for mass atrocities are important U.S. national security interests that are protected and advanced by engaging with the rest of the world to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Said Secretary of State Blinken: “Since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals after World War II, U.S. leadership meant that history permanently recorded fair judgments issued by international tribunals against justly convicted defendants from the Balkans to Cambodia, to Rwanda and elsewhere. We have carried on that legacy by supporting a range of international, regional, and domestic tribunals, and international investigative mechanisms for Iraq, Syria, and Burma, to realize the promise of justice for victims of atrocities. We will continue to do so through cooperative relationships.”

In Liberia, the lack of accountability for war crimes is attributed to a lot of the major challenges affecting Liberia at the moment. A key example is that of former warlord Prince Johnson, who was implicated in a lot of human rights violations and subject to numerous corruption allegations.

In December 2021, Senator Johnson, the former Chairman of the Senate Committee on National Security, Defense, Intelligence, and Veteran Affairs, was sanctioned by the US due to his killing of former Liberian President Samuel Doe and several other prominent Liberians. Johnson is also named in Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Report as having committed atrocities during the country’s first civil war.

US authorities say, Senator, Johnson has been involved in pay-for-play funding with government ministries and organizations for personal enrichment.

The December 2021 reported documented: “As part of the scheme, upon receiving funding from the Government of Liberia (GOL), the involved government ministries and organizations launder a portion of the funding for return to the involved participants. The pay-for-play funding scheme involves millions of U.S. dollars. Additionally, Johnson receives an undeserved salary from the GOL as a salaried intelligence “source,” yet he does not provide any form of intelligence reporting to the GOL; Johnson is reportedly being paid in order to maintain domestic stability. Johnson has also offered the sale of votes in multiple Liberian elections in exchange for money.”

Johnson has been designated pursuant to E.O. 13818 for being a foreign person who is a current or former government official, or a person acting for or on behalf of such an official, who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.

In 2018, the US House of Representatives adopted a resolution in support of criminal accountability.

US Embassy’s Position Shift

Representative Jim McGovern (Democrat, Massachusetts) explained to a Congressional hearing on Liberia in July 2021: “[T]he problem is that many people the TRC said should be prosecuted have not been. And some of those people hold high-level government positions…. The goal here is not vengeance. Accountability is not about vengeance. It is about fulfilling the rights of victims, and specifically their right to justice.”

Despite the resolutions, the US Embassy in Monrovia came under fire from Human Rights in 2021 over controversial comments showing a lack of interest in a war crimes court.

HRW pointed out: “US Embassy personnel in Liberia have repeatedly told non-governmental representatives that it seemed unclear that the call for a war crimes court and accountability had wide support in Liberia because Liberians sometimes focused more on securing their basic needs. This position undermines Liberians’ aspirations for justice and years of cross-sectoral demands for justice and perpetuates a false assumption that a focus on daily needs at times negates strong support for accountability. Staff also have indicated that expressions of US support for a war crimes court were not possible without a clear request from the Liberian government to support a court.”

For HRW, the irony of the US’s position at the time is that US officials had called for justice in many specific instances elsewhere in Africa, including calls: to Guinea to try crimes committed during the country’s 2009 stadium massacre, on Democratic Republic of Congo to prosecute scores of rapes committed in 2012, to South Sudan to establish a hybrid court to try atrocities committed during the country’s civil war, for the surrender of former Liberian President Charles Taylor to face trial for crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war before a UN backed court, to Senegal to establish the Extraordinary African Chambers to try serious crimes committed by former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, and to Central African Republic to combat impunity through the establishment of the Special Criminal Court. The US has provided financial assistance to support each of these efforts.”

Controversy Over Trial Venue

The renewed US interest comes amid reports that Ghana is slated to be the venue for the hosting of Liberia’s long-awaited War and Economic Crimes Court although there are already some reservations about the idea from Jerome Verdier, former head of Liberia’s erstwhile Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Appearing on OK FM last week, Cllr. Jerome Verdier, now a war crimes court advocate based in the United States, opined that establishing the court outside Liberia would deprive Liberians the social and economic benefit of the court. He also said, it would deprive Liberians of witnessing justice being served on their own soil. “Liberians should have the benefit of seeing justice… “The economic benefits for establishing the court, the social benefits for establishing the court, the healing and recovering process for establishing the court should be in Liberia,” he said.

FrontPageAfrica has learned international stakeholders pressing for a war and economic crimes court are concerned that protests in favor of some of the accused could cause a distraction if a trial is held in Liberia. There also concerns about the economic benefits to Ghana compared to Liberia where donor funds are needed more.

Regarding those concerns, Cllr. Verdier dismissed the popular notion that the establishment of the court in Liberia could have a negative security impact on the country. He said, Liberians are no longer willing to go back to war just to please a few groups of people who may not be satisfied with the status quo.

With the lower house set to jumpstart the process with a resolution on the floor this week, the role President Joseph Boakai will play is also crucial to the process. International stakeholders were hoping for the President to sign an Executive Order for the War and Economic Crimes Court which has not so far materialized.

While the President has expressed his willingness to go along, diplomatic sources tell FrontPageAfrica about growing frustration regarding President Boakai’s pace in regard to pushing for the establishment of the court.

In a recent interview with war crimes advocate Allan White, President Boakai appeared to have given his blessings on the establishment of the court saying that Liberians need to know the truth about the civil conflict that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than half of the country’s population internally and externally. 

Will End Justify the Means?

President Boakai lamented the issue of impunity he said has been a problem for Liberia for many years. “In every country, especially a country that boasts of independence for 176 years, and you know very well that it is because of the impunity, the disrespect, and disregard for justice that created all that we’ve seen in this country, and we believe we have to lay this to rest. Let all the facts be known; that people who think they’re innocent prove their case and we can lay this to rest so that this country can move forward. It’s not a witch-hunt, it’s a matter of testifying to what you know and what you’ve done so that forgiveness can be done on the basis of merit and truth.”

President Boakai noted in the interview with Mr. White that most of the people who were involved in the civil war are aware that if they were on the other side would like the truth to be told about it. “So, the truth is truth and each and every one has been offended and so we should be happy that this would finally close the chapter of that history that has been haunting us over the years and that’s what we’re talking about.”

The President also spoke strongly about the possibility of a war and economic crimes court during his inaugural address in January. “We have decided to set up an office to explore the feasibility for the establishment of War and Economic Crimes Court (WECC) to provide an opportunity for those who bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity to account for their actions in court.” 

For the immediate future, it is widely believed in international circles that Ambassador Van Schaack’s arrival will accelerate the discussions leading to the establishment of the war and economic crimes court for Liberia. What remains to be seen is how much of an impact, any potential opposition from former warlords – and their supporters will have on the process – as things begin to go into gear. More importantly, how will the US and other stakeholders respond?

For victims and survivors of the civil war, the end will likely justify the means, in a nation that has seen its highs and lows amid dwindling expectations and a rapidly changing political configuration, perplexed by a fading generation losing hope and running out of time and patience, for a shot at justice – and an end to impunity.  

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