Will Justice Ever Be Realized in Liberia?

-- As uncertainties for survivors of conflict-related gender-based violence as Liberia awaits the results of runoff presidential elections

By Kelsey Rhude and Yah Vallah Parwon

The year 2023 marks a crucial milestone in Liberia’s postwar journey towards justice and accountability. Firstly, it marks the 20-year anniversary since the end of the Liberian civil war. And secondly, Liberia is conducting its fourth post-war general and presidential elections this year.

With runoff elections having concluded on Tuesday between incumbent President George Weah and former Vice President Joseph Boakai, vexing questions on the country’s direction for justice remain at the forefront. Against the backdrop of lingering impunity, Liberia stands at a crossroads: in the absence of reparations for survivors of conflict-related violence, accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and consolidated efforts toward reconciliation, will justice ever be realized?

From 1989-2003, Liberia experienced a brutal period of armed conflict and instability, resulting in widespread violence against civilians and destruction of infrastructure. Gender-based violence (GBV) was especially pervasive throughout the Liberian armed conflict. The World Health Organization estimates that ‘between 61% and 77% of women and girls in Liberia were raped during the war’, in addition to reports of other forms of direct GBV, including sexual violence, sexual slavery, abductions, forced pregnancies, and forced terminations.

In 2003, warring factions signed the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which ended armed conflict and set the parameters for Liberia’s transition from war to peace. The CPA led to the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC), mandated to determine the root causes of conflict, to establish a platform for truth and reconciliation, and to provide highly anticipated recommendations for justice and accountability.

After collecting statements from more than 20,000 Liberians, the TRC released its Consolidated Final Report in June 2009. Among its many recommendations, the Commission comprehensively addressed issues relating to GBV, despite its failure to provide a robust definition of GBV that goes beyond the perfunctory conflation of gender and women.  

The TRC report highlights experiences of both direct and indirect GBV perpetrated against women and girls, as well as men and boys (though the experiences of men and boys are only marginally captured). The Commission produced a dedicated appendix on‘Women and the Conflict’ where it addressed rooted gender inequalities, direct experiences of GBV, and issues relating to the economic, social, and cultural impact of conflict on women in Liberia. These contributions are important because they broaden the criteria for what qualifies as GBV in armed conflict. 

Truth commissions are often tasked with a wide range of roles and responsibilities, one of which is to provide recommendations on how to rebuild and recover from mass atrocity. The Liberian TRC produced a number of novel recommendations, including 21 thematic categories of recommendations to address the needs of women and girls and to advance gender equality in Liberia. This includes, for example, recommendations on the establishment of free, accessible medical services, formal educational and vocational training opportunities for survivors of GBV. 

The problem? The Liberian Government has consistently neglected to implement the TRC’s recommendations. Former Liberian warlords now maintain important political positions in government, thwarting any efforts to secure justice for conflict-related violations of international law.

The persistent failure to implement the TRC’s recommendations by successive postwar governments has far-reaching consequences. It perpetuates a profound disregard for the rights and well-being of survivors of the war and contributes to enabling a ubiquitous culture of impunity. This phenomenon is not unique to the government’s approach to the TRC process but also mirrors the prevailing demands for justice in Liberia that remain unmet.

On the issue of GBV the government has taken little-to-no action on medical, legal, or socio-economic reparations as recommended by the TRC in Volume 2 and Volume 3: Appendices Title I of its final report. Though the state has engaged in some efforts to implement educational programming and to develop community infrastructure, these actions are often disguised under the facade of political campaign promises to garner votes during election season; promises that are rarely sufficiently fulfilled.

Long after the end of the armed conflict, survivors of the Liberian civil war continue to suffer the effects of trauma, social stigma and lack access to adequate and long-term psychological, legal, and economic support services. The prevalence of GBV remains endemic, and is widely accepted and embedded in the patriarchal structures of Liberian society.  

During Weah’s term as president, reports of sexual violence surged to a record high during the COVID-19 pandemic, including2,708 reported cases of sexual violence in 2019, and 2,240 reported cases in 2020. The government was compelled to declare rape as a national emergency after protestors took to the streets in September 2020, demanding that the government takes action to tackle the GBV epidemic in Liberia. This led to the development of an anti-GBV roadmap and support of the Spotlight Initiativeto promote gender equality. Likewise, gender-sensitive laws such as the Domestic Violence Act have advanced the country’s legal framework by establishing domestic violence as a criminal offense. 

While these efforts have been welcomed by Liberian civil society, many critical measures remain unimplemented. The government’s persistent failure to specifically address conflict-related GBV underscores a broader failure to address the deep-seated issues stemming from the country’s tumultuous past.

Looking ahead to Liberia’s next presidential term, the country’s new government will be confronted with the urgent need to address these persistent issues. While the election campaign period has been more of a popularity contest than a substantive discussion of critical issues, the demographics of the 2023 election results, and analysis of the candidates’ political commitments offer important insights. 

The 2023 election results highlight a visible decline in commitments to advancing gender equality given that only nine women were elected to the legislative assembly out of 88 available seats. This stagnation can be partly attributed to the government’s failure to ensure legal reforms on affirmative action, despite civil society’s clear guidance on this front. 

Furthermore, the position of both candidates on transitional justice remains ambiguous as neither party has explicitly committed to addressing the TRC’s recommendations. Weah and Boakai both failed to attend the televised presidential debates where they could have faced questions on accountability for war crimes. Additionally, following the results of the first round of elections, both candidates sought support from Mr. Alexander Cummings, another 2023 presidential candidate. His support was allegedly conditional on their endorsement of the war crimes court initiative. While neither party has released a public statement confirming endorsement of the court, Weah has since received support from the CPP (Cummings’ political party), although Cummings himself remains decidedly neutral. The lack of prioritization or clear promises on this crucial matter signals ongoing neglect towards justice and accountability, thus perpetuating the troubling trend of selective adherence to the rule of law. 

The influence of key political figures, such as Senator Prince Johnson, a former warlord recommended by the TRC for prosecution, adds complexity to this narrative. Johnson’s endorsement of candidates has played a pivotal role in past elections, with his support often swaying the outcome of election results. 

As a UNICEF Ambassador, in 2004 Weah advocated for accountability, calling for the creation of a war crimes court in Liberia. During his presidency, he also requested advice from the Liberian Legislature regarding implementation of the TRC’s recommendations. However, considering his party’s alliance with Johnson and other former combatants, he has since been silent on issues relating to accountability for international crimes. With Johnson now endorsing Boakai, prospective avenues for justice and accountability of conflict-related violence remain uncertain.

The neglect of the TRC’s recommendations, decline in gender equality commitments, and ambiguity in candidates’ stances on transitional justice underscore the pressing need for a renewed commitment to the rule of law and transparent pursuit of justice in postwar Liberia. Liberia’s future hinges on its ability to confront its past, address ongoing challenges, and forge a path toward genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace.

Editor’s note:

The following is a guest post by Kelsey Rhude and Yah Vallah Parwon. Kelsey is a final year PhD candidate at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the University of Galway, conducting research on transitional justice and peacebuilding in post-conflict Liberia. 

Yah is an African Feminist. She currently serves as the Country Director for medica Liberia with a longstanding career as a women’s human rights professional and attorney addressing issues related to social work, gender, conflict, and human rights. 

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the official position or stance of the Daily Observer Newspaper.

The following is a guest post originally published in the Justiceinconflict.org.