Liberia: ‘We Are Worried’

Commissioner of the defunct TRC, Massa Washington  

— Advocates for war crimes court express disappointment over notorious arms smuggler’s release; say his freedom is a threat to Liberians and others

The recent release of Viktor Bout, a man who helped fuel several bloody conflicts throughout Africa and the world by selling arms and munitions to oppressive regimes and rebel forces, is evoking fear among many, especially in Liberia where his operations contributed to the death of over 250,000 people.

In exchange for the basketball star Brittney Griner, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden released Bout who, at the height of his arms trade, helped supply arms and ammunition to Liberian warring factions, especially Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) — deals that fueled the civil war for many years.

But those who have long endeavored to ensure that justice prevails in the country are weary seeing arguably the world's best-known illegal arms trafficker as a free man — a move that puts a dent in their efforts for justice in Liberia.

Both Massa Washington, commissioner of the defunct Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Hassan Bility, Executive Director of Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), say the release of the Russian is a new security threat to the world, especially small and vulnerable countries like Liberia.

“So we are worried,” Washington told US-based National Public Radio when asked what Bout’s release means to Liberia.  “And we are concerned now that he's been released. And our concern is that Liberia is a porous country in terms of governance.”

The fact that there’s been no accountability for war crimes that took place in the country, and most of the warlords and rebel generals who fought the war are in a position of trust, she fears that Bout could still use his influence and connections to cause problems.

“They’ve rebranded themselves. They’re in a position of trust. Some of them are in the legislature… Some of them are in mainstream government [the executive]. Some of them are now businessmen. They are millionaires,” Washington, who as a journalist, covered the war in the 1990s,” said.

The premise of her worry, she explained, is the fact that Bout’s former colleagues and partners are in the country, and “they're running Liberia.”

“You know, they have political power. They have economic strength. So we are worried what this portends for Liberia,” she said.

“Is he going to come back to Liberia?” Is Mr. Bout going to rekindle his relationships with his former war partners, who are now the people who are running Liberia? This is very worrisome for us, for we worry what it portends for the security, safety and stability of Liberia that is still struggling with the aftereffects of the civil war,” she said.

For Bility, Bout's release leaves much to be desired. “As the global champion of justice and accountability, we didn't expect the US to release a man whose actions led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Liberian lives,” he told the Daily Observer in an email interview. “We however understand the US did so in its national interest.”

Bility’s GJRP, which helped track down, try and convict people who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Liberian war, said, “We expect the US to continue to assist Liberia in holding [Bout’s] collaborators accountable for the violations of International Humanitarian Laws during Liberia's two armed conflicts.”

“I must stress that the US has been very instrumental in bringing suspected Liberian war criminals to justice. I thank them for that.” Some of those GJRP helped convict include Alieu Kosiah, Mohammed Jabbateh, Thomas Woewiyu.

Bility said Bout's freedom should serve as a challenge to human rights and justice advocates. “The US itself agrees that war criminals should be held accountable. Ambassador Michael McCarthy has driven this point home. They are very helpful,” he said. 

Bout’s release should be considered an exception, not the rule, he noted. “It doesn't mean the US doesn't support accountability. The US does. His imprisonment did bring some relief and justice to Liberia. The US, in line with its interest in justice, at least did something which we appreciate,” said Bility, who acknowledged that the incarceration of the Russian brought some relief and justice to Liberia, said.

As to whether the Liberian Government's apparent “unwillingness” to hold suspected war criminals accountable in Liberia played any role in the USA’s decision to exchange prisoners, Bility said, “the US did so in its own interest — to save the life of an American citizen. That's perfectly understandable.” 

“Accountability in Liberia is not the responsibility of the US Government, but the Liberian Government,” he stressed. 

Washington and Bility, like many other advocates, think Bout is a monster and, while the release of basketball star Griner is a cause for celebration, they hope global actors will ensure that his release will not result in devastating security implications around the globe.

The release of the Russian would be a setback to his accountability for the crimes he allegedly committed and enabled in Liberia.

Between 1989 and 2003, Bout sold weapons to Liberian warring factions, notable among them being former President Charles Taylor. His trade deals with the former Liberian President circumvented several United Nations arms embargoes.

Bout was active in Afghanistan, Colombia, Angola, the former Yugoslavia, Yemen, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Liberia featured prominently in making him more notorious.

His profitable deals with Taylor also spiraled to other countries in the region. It did not also spare Liberia’s natural resources because, as he supplied Taylor with arms and ammunition, Taylor illegally exploited the country’s logs and minerals and abused its huge shipping registry to pay him, a global witness report said.

The plundering of the Liberian forestry sector to fuel the war led to the infamous tags “Logs of war” and “conflict timbers” across the world.

In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended that Bout be investigated for his role in the country’s crises, but this is yet to happen more than a decade on.

The viciousness of the war that Bout contributed to led to more than 1 million people fleeing externally into refugee camps in the neighboring countries, especially Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Ghana. Internal displacement was massive.