In a short while from now, the trial of another war crimes suspect and former top commander of the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front, Gibril Massaquoi, will commence in the Finnish city of Tampere. It has been announced that the trial will later move to Monrovia.
Gibril Massaquoi, unlike Charles Taylor and his RUF compatriots, is being tried for crimes committed in Liberia although perpetrators of war and economic crimes have yet to face trial.
It is now eleven (11) years since the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission submitted its final report to the Government of Liberia. Although the report contains over a hundred wide-ranging recommendations, it is the recommendations on accountability that have preoccupied public concerns about the report.
The TRC recommended that 116 individuals found responsible for gross human rights violations, war crimes and economic crimes be investigated and prosecuted by an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal.
The TRC also recommended that 49 individuals including then President Sirleaf be publicly sanctioned and barred from holding office for a period of 30 years.
A further 36 individuals/alleged perpetrators were recommended for pardon for having cooperated with the TRC process, spoke truthfully and expressed remorse for their actions.
From its very inception, the report received very hostile reception from President Sirleaf and officials of her government.
But this was hardly surprising because the TRC recommended that she and others accused of participating in the civil war were barred from holding public office for a period of thirty (30) years and that others should stand trial for crimes committed.
What was surprising though was the reaction of the international community towards the TRC report. Leaked emails had suggested that President Sirleaf was sparing no effort to mobilize international opinion against the report.
Amnesty International and a host of other international organizations including Human Rights and the Carter Center were very slow to respond despite the great interest they had shown in the work of the TRC.
It can be recalled that then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visiting Liberia shortly after the release of the TRC report, made absolutely no mention of the report.
She declared instead, “I look at what President Sirleaf has done in the past three years and I see a very accomplished leader dedicated to the betterment of the Liberian people.”
At the time President Sirleaf was far advanced in preparations for a second-term run for office, having made it clear that she would “be a formidable candidate”.
Hilary Clinton’s statement immediately sank the hopes of all well-meaning Liberians to have those accused of involvement in the civil war to account for their actions.
Secretary Clinton may have probably felt convinced that President Sirleaf’s decision to ignore the TRC report for fears of “opening old wounds” was indeed the right thing to do under the circumstances.
But if indeed Secretary Clinton’s assessment of President Sirleaf’s credentials as an impressive and capable leader dedicated to the betterment of Liberia why then did Ellen Loj, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Liberia and other top Western diplomats intervene to stop the release of a very critical assessment report on President Sirleaf’s first term done by a group of graduate students from Columbia University? (see Ashoka Mukpo’s “Tyranny of good intentions”.)
Since then, official US government support for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court for Liberia has been at best lukewarm.
But now with confirmed news that a former Sierra Leonean rebel commander is being tried for crimes committed in Liberia, the public is questioning what has happened to the whole cast of perpetrators accused of gross abuse of human rights and named in the TRC report including Prince Johnson, Alhaji Kromah, George Boley, Sekou Damante Conneh, Yahya Nimley?
Already, a number of alleged perpetrators have died of natural circumstances without having to face justice or account for their actions. If progress continue to stall, more could die off, thus leaving only the small fry to account.
The coming of the trial to Liberia is indeed welcome news. It is important because it will constitute a blow against impunity and, even more so, provide hope to Liberians that justice will finally be served. In this regard, hopes are high that the Biden administration will do all it can, using its immense leverage and power, to support the establishment of a war and economic crimes court for Liberia as soon as possible.