.... “The Liberian government has to be accountable to its people. The US government is willing to support through technical and financial means to establish a tribunal,” Schaack said yesterday, while on a visit to Liberia to understand why the court has not been established as recommended by the TRC report.
The United States government has promised to fund the formation of a war crimes tribunal in Liberia, citing the need for justice for victims of the country’s bloody 14-year civil crisis.
The commitment, announced by Beth Van Schaack, the US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, comes at a time when Liberia is yet to establish a war crimes court — a most contentious part of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations.
The court would hear the prosecution of any of the 98 perpetrators that the TRC finds responsible for various kinds of gross human rights violations and war crimes.
Schaack, who advises the US Secretary of State and other senior officials on issues relating to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, said it is time for the government of Liberia “to be accountable to its people”.
“The Liberian government has to be accountable to its people. The US government is willing to support through technical and financial means to establish a tribunal,” Schaack said yesterday, while on a visit to Liberia to understand why the court has not been established as recommended by the TRC report.
“The TRC report has some useful recommendations to address war crimes and atrocities. We encourage those in positions of power to look very carefully at those recommendations. It is never late to dispense justice. The individuals who suffered the crimes are still calling for justice and those who represent them should look into those calls.”
The declaration by Schaack, a former practicing lawyer in the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, is a bold promise by the administration of US President Joe Biden to stand with victims of civil war-era crimes in Liberia.
In the past, the US has been hesitant to reveal the level of support it is willing to provide for the prosecution of warlords in Liberia, considering the fact that Firestone Liberia, an indirect subsidiary of Bridgestone Americas — part of the Bridgestone Group — was one of 19 corporations that the TRC asked to be investigated and prosecuted for economic crimes.
But Schaack’s remarks indicate some shift in US policy towards the establishment of a war crime tribunal in Liberia, knowing that the issue of criminal accountability for civil war-era atrocities has widespread support in Liberia.
The US government has played a pivotal role in fostering accountability in West Africa, including in the landmark trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor by the Sierra Leone Special Court.
“The Lutheran massacre was not done by rebel forces but government forces,” Schaack noted. “This is why it does not matter who is in charge as leaders… It is a government case. “I don’t think it is about creating a big court. It won’t be like the tribunal in The Hague.”
“Creating hybrid courts to address cases close to the people is now the model. No one is taken from the country to another country for trial or sentence.”
Schaack's remarks about the Lutheran massacre comes nearly three months after a federal court in the US State of Pennsylvania issued a historic damages award totaling US$84 million to four victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre, one of the deadliest attacks on civilians during the Liberian Civil Wars.
The court’s ruling on damages follows a September 2021 decision holding Col. Moses Thomas, formerly of the Armed Force of Liberia, responsible for the war crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing, and torture that took place during the Massacre. Thomas, formerly a resident of Pennsylvania, has now returned to Liberia.
The TRC, which operated between 2006 and 2009, in its report, details evidence of various kinds of gross human rights violations, war and economic crimes.
It then called for the establishment of a war crimes court — as the 14 years of civil war led to widespread human righst violations such as mass killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, summary executions, mutilation, torture and use of child combatants.
Eight heads of different warring factions including Senator Prince Y. Johnson of Nimba County and Representative George Boley of Grand Gedeh County, along with 21 others, were recommended for prosecution for war and economic crimes as well as 19 corporations, institutions, and state actors.
The TRC report also called for 52 people to be sanctioned and barred from holding public office again. However, since the TRC report was submitted in 2009, both the administrations of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and current President George Manneh Weah have shown no willingness to establish a war crimes court to confront the legacy of the country’s 14-year civil war, which killed an estimated 250,000 people.
Judicial authorities in the United States, Belgium, France, Finland, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have been pursuing criminal cases related to Liberia’s civil wars in recent years, often spurred by civil society efforts.
Critics of the court have argued that its absence is a measure aimed at safeguarding the country’s Constitution and peace. They have also cited challenges that would often arise, should such a court be established.
Such challenges include protection and support for witnesses and victims, security for judges and staff, assuring fair legal process, and educating the local population about the court.
This criticism then fueled the Liberian Senate’s decision, a year ago, to call on President George Weah to set up a Transitional Justice Commission to determine if the TRC commissioners complied with the mandate, such as the face-to-face meeting with perpetrators of crimes and other offenses and their respective victims in light of allegations from some former warlords that the TRC never contacted them.
The Senate had argued that the Commission, when established, will examine the effect of the August 2003 Act of the Legislature, which granted general amnesty to all participants in the civil crisis, a major obstacle to the prosecutions of warlords.
The Commission has however not yet been established.
But Schaack disagreed with criticism against the TRC. According to her, the TRC report contains strong and important recommendations which are useful to address the country's war crimes and atrocities legacy.
The US Envoy noted that while there has been no accountability in Liberia on the criminal side or the civil side, the TRC report needs to be implemented so as to hold those responsible for the abuses.
“You can think about justice in a broad way: it can be criminal justice for those who were directly involved and caused so much harm. Participating in a war is not necessarily a crime in itself, but it is the architect of the violence. They are the most culpable. You can also include restorative justice which can help rehabilitate the victims and perpetrators either from physical wounds or psychological conditions. Some could involve an apology,” she said.
“You have come a long way as a country, but yet to implement anything. We’ll meet with the Legislature and the Executive to know why the delay in the establishment of a tribunal to try the cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Meanwhile, Schaack noted that when there is justice and it is applied appropriately, corruption is minimized and development is realized, “roads can be built and children can have access to good and quality education as well as a good health system can be realized.”