Liberia’s new government should take prompt steps to pave the way for fair investigation and prosecution of serious past crimes committed during Liberia’s brutal civil wars, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to President George Weah released today.
Weah was elected in late December 2017, after a tense election run-off with former Vice President Joseph Boakai. Weah took office on January 22, 2018.
“President Weah has a chance to make history by ensuring that Liberia’s victims at long last have a chance to see the people who committed crimes against them held to account,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Liberia has made important progress to advance post-conflict stability, but no one has faced justice in Liberia for the brutal crimes during that period.”
During two armed conflicts – 1989 to 1996 and 1999 to 2003 – horrific abuses were committed against civilians in Liberia. These included summary executions and numerous large-scale massacres; widespread and systematic rape; mutilation and torture; and large-scale forced conscription and use of child combatants. The violence blighted the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, displaced almost half the population, and virtually destroyed the country’s infrastructure.
Liberia has not prosecuted a single person for these grave crimes.
The only efforts to bring justice for the victims have been made before courts outside Liberia, in the United States, Belgium, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Most of these proceedings were initiated under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows national authorities to pursue individuals believed to be responsible for certain grave international crimes such as torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, even though they were committed elsewhere and neither the accused nor the victims are nationals of the country.
While these cases help to break wholesale impunity for the crimes, they remain a severely restricted route to justice as they generally depend on the presence of the suspect on the territory of the country pursuing the case.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created in Liberia in 2006 to address the causes and impact of the country’s social turmoil between 1979 and 2003. In December 2009, the TRC issued its final report, which highlighted problems in the Liberian justice system and called for the establishment of a hybrid international-national tribunal with Liberian and foreign judges to try past crimes. While supportive of the general approach, Human Rights Watch has recommended that several elements of the proposal should be revised to ensure prosecutions of past crimes in accordance with international standards.
Weah should take several specific steps to begin pursuing accountability for past atrocities, Human Rights Watch said. The government should as soon as possible establish an independent advisory committee on justice and the rule of law and develop a comprehensive and public strategy to ensure the prompt investigation and fair prosecution of those responsible for past atrocities.
As part of these efforts, the new government should revisit the TRC’s recommendations with a view to establishing a court with international assistance to fairly and effectively prosecute international crimes committed in Liberia.
“The countless victims of the unspeakable crimes committed in Liberia deserve justice for what they have suffered,” Keppler said. “The era of rampant impunity for international crimes should at last close.”