UN General Assembly an Opportunity to Advance War Crimes Court
By Elise Keppler
One year ago, Liberian President George Weah gave hope to victims of brutal crimes committed during the country’s civil wars when he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly about pursuing a war crimes court for Liberia.
He said consultations with the national legislature were already in motion, and engagement with the judicial system and international partners on the court’s creation was on the way. But since then, there has been little progress.
Liberians suffered tremendously during the wars, which spanned more than 14 years starting in 1989, and left tens of thousands dead. Warring parties gunned down civilians in their homes, marketplaces, and places of worship. Women and girls were subjected to horrific sexual violence including gang rape, sexual slavery, and torture. Villages were destroyed. Children were abducted and forced into armed service.
The government has begun to allow foreign investigators into Liberia to investigate war crimes for overseas prosecutions. But not one alleged perpetrator has faced a court of law in Liberia. While Covid-19 is presenting unprecedented challenges to Liberia, some steps toward accountability should be possible.
Liberian, regional, and international organizations wrote to President Weah on September 10 asking him to use his speech at this month’s General Assembly to request UN assistance in setting up a war crimes court, reviving plans for justice, and rekindling the hopes of victims and their families.
The UN Human Rights Committee in 2018 concluded that Liberia should “establish a process of accountability for past gross human rights violations and war crimes that conforms to international standards” and report back by July 27, 2020. A report has yet to be submitted.
Meanwhile, former warlords are working to block a war crimes court, and last October, the speaker of Liberia’s legislature declined to introduce a resolution on the court, despite strong backing among lawmakers. Human rights activists who have championed accountability have faced increasing threats, as have witnesses to civil wars-era crimes.
President Weah will be on the international stage when he speaks at the General Assembly, even as the debate happens virtually this year. He should send a clear message that he stands with victims and that the brutal crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars will no longer go unpunished.