The United Nations will be counting on the next Liberian administration to make transitional justice a paramount concern, Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, has said.
In a release yesterday, Gilmour said during his recent visit to Liberia, “It was made undeniably clear to me that many Liberians desire the implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).”
He said it also includes those that called for criminal accountability. “What we have learned in so many countries is that national reconciliation to overcome the horrors of the past is essential for moving forward to a sustainable shared future. Liberian leaders should remember that their country is unlikely to be the exception to this rule, and that true peace won’t be possible if the Liberian people feel that their desire for justice remains unmet,” he said.
He said in his line of work, “it is all too rare to observe great progress. But that is what I found in Liberia two weeks ago. The previous time I had visited, in 2004, the effects of the terrible war were everywhere. I was moved to see what has been achieved since then, which is largely due to the government and people, with vital support provided by the United Nations Mission in Liberia.”
The progress notwithstanding, he said “there is a great deal that needs to be done to improve the human rights of Liberians. This is why I came to finalize an agreement with the government to open a new UN Human Rights Office in the country once UNMIL departs next year.”
Gilmour said: “As we do elsewhere, this office will conduct human rights monitoring and reporting, as well as provide important technical assistance to state institutions, including the Independent National Commission for Human Rights, in addition to civil society groups.”
He held several meetings with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and several cabinet ministers, as well as leading civil society activists and ambassadors, and solicited opinions on Liberia’s human rights challenges to determine the priorities for the new office.
“High among those priorities were harmful traditional practices, many of which are in violation of international human rights treaties ratified by the Government of Liberia. They also lead to enormous suffering, especially for women and girls. While the authorities have made some efforts to stop some practices – for example, by banning trial by ordeal and developing stricter regulations for bush schools – many informed me that enforcing regulations has been a challenge,” he said.
He spoke on what others stressed as the perceived lack of political will by state actors to tackle such practices, particularly female genital mutilation (FGM).
“In May 2015, Liberian leaders pledged to criminalize FGM during the Universal Periodic Review, a review of the human rights records of UN member states.” However, despite this public assurance, the provisions aimed at banning FGM were removed from the Domestic Violence Act passed by the national legislature this year, he said.
He called on the authorities to do far more within their power to end harmful traditional practices, and “we encourage efforts to engage local leaders, educate communities, and provide alternative sources of income, particularly for FGM practitioners.”
Gilmour said prolonged pretrial detention was also identified as a critical human rights challenge and quoted the most recent statistics that says “63 percent of the total prison population is detainees awaiting trial.” “I visited Monrovia Central Prison and witnessed terrible overcrowding, due largely to delays in judicial procedures. It also leads to inmates receiving insufficient food. While we recognize the efforts of the government to allow some detainees speedier trial, the ‘fast-track’ adjudication of cases only benefits those accused of low-level crimes and majority of the detainees, however, are accused of serious offenses, and are therefore denied their right to due process.” He regretted that as a result those accused are condemned to months or years of misery, even though many of them may be innocent of any crime.
“I also visited the Palava Hut Memorial in Paynesville, the site of a mass grave for victims killed during the war. It was a somber moment that served as a reminder of the unspeakable atrocities that some Liberians inflicted on others. But, more importantly, it is a reminder that justice is yet to be delivered to the hundreds of thousands of war victims, and to those who continue to live with the trauma of the past,” Gilmour said.