By John H. T. Stewart/Commissioner, former TRC of Liberia
It is now 10 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted its edited final report to the Legislature in December 2009. While the report was well received by the vast majority of Liberians, received a hostile reception from the Government of Liberia led by its then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who by coincidence was sanctioned in the report. Aside from President Sirleaf, Governance Commission Chairman, Dr. Amos Sawyer, was perhaps the most prominent amongst government officials who trashed the report. It also included then Justice Minister, Phillip A.Z. Banks, who had earlier advised President Sirleaf against an appearance before the TRC.
Others would follow suit, including figures from the international community amongst them, a good friend of President Sirleaf, American billionaire George Soros, who had flown to Liberia, ostensibly at the behest of his friend and President to meet with Commissioners of the TRC. Elation at the prospects of meeting with such a world-renowned figure, who had appeared sympathetic to this country’s imperatives for justice, reconciliation and accountability was to soon turn into consternation and apprehension on the part of most Commissioners.
Billionaire George Soros had actually come to in effect threaten to withhold funding from the TRC if Commissioners did cooperate (play ball) with the International Center for Transitional Justice(ICTJ), an American based non-governmental organization (NGO), which had established offices in Monrovia with the obvious intent to exert a controlling influence on the TRC. When its attempts failed it resorted to the publication of slanderous articles against the TRC flagging internal disagreement amongst members as a precursor to its eventual failure.
But the Liberian TRC process was, like any human endeavor, prone to mistakes, disagreements, and whatever else. And it was by no means surprising that personal perceptions held by Commissioners on the conflict would come into play during and throughout the entire exercise. And it was precisely because of this realization that Commissioners developed and approved “Rules of Procedure” for the conduct of business and decision making on the basis of consensus or by vote in cases where a consensus could not be reached.
Throughout the TRC process, Commissioners found themselves confronted with serious challenges in the face of latent hostility from the Government of Liberia whose fiduciary responsibility to the TRC appeared to have been surrendered to the disposition of the international community to actually take control of it.
For example, there was the perception held by the donor community Liberians (TRC Commissioners) were incapable of writing and producing a report of its activities and in keeping with this perception, a coterie of experts were hired to write the TRC report.
But what the experience showed was that the experts lacked contextual and cultural competence which significantly impaired their ability to perform without requiring long and detailed narratives from Commissioners per sitting. To address this problem, Commissioners were each tasked to write sections of the report which were submitted to the Report Writing Committee chaired by Commissioner John Stewart. Eventually, the TRC was able to generate over twenty-thousand pages of documented material which it had to compile into a comprehensive written report.
Disappointingly, donor support for the preparation of the report remained restricted to 10,000 pages only despite the fact that at least twenty-thousand pages were available for inclusion in the report. They included county investigative reports, reports of in-camera hearings, witness testimonies and other investigative reports including those on war and economic crimes.
Additionally, donors had (owing to security concerns) unilaterally selected Ghana for completion and printing of the report. The TRC Report Writing Committee was accordingly requested to proceed to Ghana with a camera-ready copy of the report for printing. However it was not possible, owing to a host of reasons, to proceed to Ghana as requested, with a camera-ready copy of the report which obviously needed further editing.
But the fees being charged for the editing was exorbitant, in excess of 25,000 US dollars so the Report Writing Committee was left with no alternative but to take on the task of editing the voluminous report which for the most part, fell directly on the shoulders of the Chairman of the Report Writing Committee. To make matters worse, Daily Subsistence Allowance provided to members of the Report Writing Committee covering an 18-day period allotted for completion of the report was about running out with the report still unfinished and the Government of Liberia and the donor community flatly refusing to provide further funding for the upkeep of Commissioners in Ghana.
This development necessitated the return of Commissioners Massa Washington and Gerald Coleman to Monrovia, leaving behind Chairman Jerome Verdier and Commissioner to figure a way out of the predicament. Fortunately, a Liberian friend and sympathizer of the TRC(name withheld) came to our rescue and provided room and board free of charge to help enable us finalize the report.
Completion required a little over 3 months. Perhaps such punitive measures were being taken against TRC Commissioners especially members of the Report Writing Committee for daring to sanction President Sirleaf for her role played in the conflict.
Eventually the report was completed and submitted to the Government in December, 2009.
But it (the report) received instant knee-jerk like reaction from the Government of Liberia. And for that, Commissioners of the TRC especially those perceived to have voted to sanction President Sirleaf were denied their deserved salaries and benefits while some received death threats that instigated their flight into self-imposed exile.
If such acts were intended to douse public concerns about implementation of the TRC recommendations and perhaps exculpate President Sirleaf of responsibility, partial or full, for the devastating impact of of the conflict arising from resort to the use of extra-constitutional means (force and violence) to usher political change, then they have certainly failed as evidenced by increasing calls for justice and accountability including full implementation of the TRC recommendations on accountability.
Ten years later, the TRC report, according to the UN High Commission for Human Rights, has now become the accepted accountability frame work for Liberia and it has accordingly ramped up its support for implementation of the TRC recommendations. Even those who once wrote scathing criticisms about the TRC have now become ardent campaigners for implementation of the TRC recommendations.
The Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) has perhaps added the icing on the cake by completing draft legislation on the establishment of a war and economic crimes court for Liberia.
But there is much more to the TRC report other than recommendations on Lustration and Criminal Accountability which from all indications have not received the deserve treatment in the media to aid and enhance greater public understanding of the TRC report.
Accordingly going forward, this writer by dint of experience as a TRC Commissioner and Editor-in-Chief of the TRC report shall provide regular analysis and interpretation of those tumultuous moments and events associated with the conduct of the TRC process and the outcomes produced therefrom.
To be continued.