A Human Rights Lens to the US-Liberia Partnership: Liberian President George Weah should act to create a war crimes court in Liberia that can fairly try alleged perpetrators of civil wars-era crimes.
Widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law characterized Liberia’s two brutal armed conflicts, which took place between 1989 and 2003. Liberian men, women, and children were gunned down in their homes, marketplaces, and places of worship. In a few cases hundreds of civilians were massacred in a matter of hours. Girls and women were subjected to horrific sexual violence including gang-rape, sexual slavery, and torture. Children were abducted from their homes and schools and pressed into service, often after witnessing the murder of their parents. The violence blighted the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and displaced almost half the population.
Briefing Note on the Call for a War Crimes Court for Liberia
When negotiations to end the second civil conflict occurred in Accra, Ghana in 2003, members of Liberian civil society gathered to advocate for the establishment of a war crimes court to bring to justice alleged perpetrators of the crimes. Ultimately Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created, which represented a compromise between a court and other accountability measures. The Act creating the TRC gave wide powers to the commission, including to recommend prosecution. The TRC in its final report recommended the creation of an extraordinary criminal court which would be a hybrid court composed of Liberian and international judges, prosecutors and other staff with a mandate to try those allegedly responsible for committing serious crimes.
For the next decade, this recommendation languished. However, with President Weah’s election, there were renewed hopes to advance calls for a war crimes court to deliver justice for civil wars-era crimes. Prior to becoming president, President Weah had expressed support for accountability, including backing a war crimes court in 2004 while he served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. His political party, Congress for Democratic Change, had long backed a court.
With President Weah’s election in December 2017, Liberian and international activists began a new campaign for action by the government to establish a war crimes court. Weah was initially silent on the question of accountability. Pressure increased as the activists’ campaign was joined by widespread support and clamoring for the court by a diverse set of players in Liberia, including political parties, religious leaders, lawyers, victims and ordinary Liberians. The Liberian National Bar Association prepared a draft bill for the establishment of a war crimes court.
In September 2019, hopes were raised when President Weah requested that Liberia’s National Legislature “advise and provide guidance on all legislative and other necessary measures towards the implementation of the TRC report, including the establishment of war and economic crime courts.” During his 2019 speech at the General Debate of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), President Weah stated “considering the importance of this matter, I have already begun consultations…in order to determine pertinent issues such as legal framework, timing, venue, and funding, among others.” More than 50 legislators in the lower house of Liberia’s National Legislature, the House of Representatives, also endorsed a resolution backing a court.
These actions turned out to be a high-water mark. There has been no progress toward the creation of a war crimes court since. Weah told Liberian media upon his return from the UNGA: “I have not one day called for a war crimes court.” He subsequently has been silent or dismissive of the court, while Liberian National Legislature leadership has blocked the resolution supporting a court from consideration.
In 2021, Liberia’s Senate proposed the creation of a Transitional Justice Commission, which would essentially impede progress on accountability by revisiting the basic premise of Liberia’s TRC to recommend prosecutions. The effort was driven in large part by Prince Johnson, a warlord turned senator who is subject to US sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Johnson has openly opposed a war court, which is not surprising given he is implicated in serious crimes committed during Liberia’s conflict.
Lack of Accountability in Liberia
In 2023, Liberia will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the end of its civil wars through the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but it will do so in an environment where impunity prevails, and the country remains a haven for some individuals implicated in serious crimes.
The only steps toward criminal accountability have been cases prosecuted abroad: namely, US federal conviction of Charles Chuckie Taylor, Jr. for torture committed in Liberia, convictions for crimes committed during Liberia’s first civil war by former rebel commanders Alieu Kosiah, in Switzerland, and Kunti Kamara, in France, and a pending case in Belgium.
There are also US federal convictions on immigration violations, fraud, and other crimes that are linked to underlying abuses in Liberia, of “Jungle Jabbeh,” and Thomas Woewiyu. In addition, George Boley was deported from the US to Liberia in 2012 due to his alleged role in the use and recruitment of child soldiers and other abuses; he now serves as a representative in the Liberian legislature protected from facing any imminent prospects for accountability. A civil suit in the United States seeking remedies for one of the single worst incidents during Liberia’s wars, the 1990 Lutheran Church massacre, was successful, but the defendant fled to, and now resides in, Liberia where there are no current accountability prospects. Survivors have brought a suit at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice for Liberia’s failure to pursue justice for crimes during the massacre.
United States Government Role
The US government is uniquely placed to assist victims access justice for serious crimes committed in Liberia. Given the historical ties, the United States has always been one of, if not the, most important international partners of Liberia, with an ability to exert significant influence. US Representative Smith has highlighted: “Liberia is unique among all other countries of the world. There is no other country whose history is so intertwined with that of the United States, founded as it was by free American slaves.”
The US has offered crucial support for justice, including technical, financial, and political support for domestic, hybrid and international justice mechanisms. As explained by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in 2021:
Our support for the rule of law, access to justice, and accountability for mass atrocities are important U.S. national security interests that are protected and advanced by engaging with the rest of the world to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. Since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals after World War II, U.S. leadership meant that history permanently recorded fair judgments issued by international tribunals against justly convicted defendants from the Balkans to Cambodia, to Rwanda and elsewhere. We have carried on that legacy by supporting a range of international, regional, and domestic tribunals, and international investigative mechanisms for Iraq, Syria, and Burma, to realize the promise of justice for victims of atrocities. We will continue to do so through cooperative relationships.
Until last month, the US government executive branch has been silent on the need for criminal accountability for civil wars-era crimes in Liberia, although the House of Representatives adopted a resolution in support of criminal accountability in 2018, in addition to convening hearings on the issue. US Representative McGovern explained on the occasion of a Congressional hearing on Liberia in July 2021: “[T]he problem is that many people the TRC said should be prosecuted have not been. And some of those people hold high-level government positions….the goal here is not vengeance. Accountability is not about vengeance. It is about fulfilling the rights of victims, and specifically their right to justice.”
US Embassy personnel in Liberia have repeatedly told non-governmental representatives that it seemed unclear that the call for a war crimes court and accountability had wide support in Liberia because Liberians sometimes focused more on securing their basic needs. This position undermines Liberians’ aspirations for justice and years of cross-sectoral demands for justice and perpetuates a false assumption that a focus on daily needs at times negates strong support for accountability. Staff also have indicated that expressions of US support for a war crimes court were not possible without a clear request from the Liberian government to support a court.
A passive approach to the US position on justice for past crimes in Liberia is inconsistent with:
• The needs, rights and interests of Liberian victims;
• US policy in backing justice for serious crimes committed in violation of international law, including in many country contexts and its experience supporting domestic, hybrid and international accountability mechanisms
• Liberia’s international obligations to prosecute the most serious crimes.
US officials have called for justice in many specific instances elsewhere in Africa, including calls: to Guinea to try crimes committed during the country’s 2009 stadium massacre, on Democratic Republic of Congo to prosecute scores of rapes committed in 2012, to South Sudan to establish a hybrid court to try atrocities committed during the country’s civil war, for the surrender of former Liberian President Charles Taylor to face trial for crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war before a UN backed court, to Senegal to establish the Extraordinary African Chambers to try serious crimes committed by former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, and to Central African Republic to combat impunity through the establishment of the Special Criminal Court. The US has provided financial assistance to support each of these efforts.
Lack of accountability for serious crimes can be expected to contribute to current challenges in Liberia. For example, Prince Johnson who is implicated in responsibility for human rights violations, is also implicated in corruption. According to the US Treasury Department:
In 1990, he was responsible for the murder of former Liberian President Samuel Doe, and Johnson is named in Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Report as having committed atrocities during the country’s first civil war. As a Senator, Johnson has been involved in pay-for-play funding with government ministries and organizations for personal enrichment. As part of the scheme, upon receiving funding from the Government of Liberia (GOL), the involved government ministries and organizations launder a portion of the funding for return to the involved participants. The pay-for-play funding scheme involves millions of US dollars. Johnson has also offered the sale of votes in multiple Liberian elections in exchange for money.
During a visit to Liberia in October of this year, US War Crimes Ambassador Beth Van Schaack helpfully began to convey US interest in accountability for past crimes in Liberia and the need for greater clarity on what has impeded progress to date. Reflecting the significance Liberia attaches to its relationship with the United States, Ambassador Schaack’s visit was major news in Liberia and renewed hope among individuals who have felt betrayed by President Weah’s failure to take any concrete steps toward justice.
Making justice a reality in Liberia requires sustained attention from justice champions in and outside of Liberia. More specifically, what is needed now is clear, high-level messages from the US, alongside Liberia’s other international and regional partners that a war crimes court is needed, and that international expertise based on accumulated experience should be requested by Liberia to determine the best legal and structural modalities for the court’s creation in a manner that will enable fair, credible functioning.
This December, during the Biden Administration US-African Leaders Summit, President Biden has an excellent opportunity to emphasize his support for justice in Liberia to President Weah. Messaging along the lines below would be extremely helpful in clearly communicating the justification and need for the court:
• Victims have had no access to justice in Liberia for civil wars-era crimes since the end of the conflicts in 2003. A war crimes court to fairly try the crimes is needed without delay;
• President Weah should actively support the establishment of the court and request expert assistance from international and regional partners, especially the African Union, ECOWAS, UN, US and European states to establish a court that can fairly try crimes. This includes advice on legal instruments for the court’s creation (such as legislation and treaties) and to ensure effective composition through inclusion of international judges, prosecutors, and staff alongside Liberian practitioners; and
• The US government will build upon its important and valuable practice of support for accountability efforts for justice for the worst atrocity crimes elsewhere through domestic, hybrid and international courts, as it has done in Central African Republic, Chad, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia.
The US government should then follow-up on these messages through the offer of technical and financial assistance to the Liberian government and a commitment to work in partnership as needed to ensure justice can at last be accessible to victims in Liberia, engaging with the justice system and victims’ groups and other organizations who remain committed to supporting all efforts to advance the prospects for justice.
• Questions & Answers on Justice of Civil Wars-Era Crimes in Liberia, April 1, 2019: https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/04/01/qa-justice-civil-wars-era-crimes-liberia
• Liberia: Video Appeal for War Crimes Court
Together, the following organizations issued this briefing note:
Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, Center for Justice and Accountability, Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia, Civitas Maxima, Global Research and Justice Project, Human Rights Watch, The Advocates for Human Rights, Transitional Justice Working Group, Secretariat for the Establishment of War Crimes Court for Liberia, and Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia.