The year 2023 holds special significance for the West African state of Liberia: 20 years of continuous peace and stability after two harrowing civil wars that saw more than 250,000 people killed, two million displaced, and thousands of others tortured, raped, and maimed.
It is also an election year that is expected to see the strengthening of the fledgling democratic process in a country that has seen only one peaceful transfer of power in almost 80 years.
Yet, despite the people’s great optimism after years of peace, there remain unresolved issues from the country’s painful past that risk casting a pall on the future of all Liberians.
The ghosts of the two brutal civil wars that stretched from 1989 to 2003, with a brief pausing of hostilities between 1996 and 1999, have yet to be laid to rest due to the lack of a mechanism to ensure justice and accountability for the widespread and systematic human rights and humanitarian law violations of the period.
The many parties that were involved in the conflict participated in raiding and looting villages, homes, marketplaces, and places of worship. In some instances, hundreds of civilians were massacred and girls and women were subjected to unspeakable sexual violence including rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, torture, and outrages on personal dignity. Children were abducted and forced to serve at the war front as soldiers or carriers. The violence shattered the lives of thousands of civilians and displaced almost half the population of Liberia.
Yet no one has been held accountable for the suffering and the atrocities. The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called for the establishment of a hybrid court to try those most responsible for the crimes, as well as reparations for the victims, vetting of public officials, and institutional reforms. However, successive governments have ignored these recommendations, citing lack of resources and security as reasons for non-implementation. Meanwhile, some of the suspected perpetrators recommended for trial, investigation, or barring from holding public office continue to enjoy freedom or wield political power.
It is ironical that former President Charles Taylor, one of the main instigators of the conflicts and whose rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), has been implicated in some of the atrocities, is serving 50 years in jail, but not for crimes committed in Liberia. Instead, he was implicated in supporting the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighbouring Sierra Leone, which committed similar crimes.
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In 2006, he was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a hybrid tribunal established by the United Nations (UN) and the Sierra Leonean government to try those most responsible for the crimes committed during that country’s civil war. On April 26, 2012, Taylor was convicted by the SCSL of aiding and abetting 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
It seems the burden of fighting for justice and accountability in Liberia has fallen on the shoulders of a handful of human rights activists and advocates, including Hassan Bility, the director of the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer, and Adama Dempster, the secretary-general of the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia.
Bility, a former journalist who was arrested seven times and jailed by Taylor’s security forces between 1997 and 2002, has experienced grave injustice. His last arrest in June 2002 led to international efforts to secure his release orchestrated by organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Union, the US, and local human rights groups.
In an interview with Journalists For Justice (JFJ), Bility insisted that many victims are still seeking justice and that the TRC recommendations have been politicised.
“In 2012, I thought it was possible to hold these perpetrators accountable for two reasons,” Bility stated. “One is because a good number of the former combatants have travelled to either the US or Western Europe, where, under their jurisdictions, investigations could commence with internationally acceptable standardised evidence. The second reason is that the legal mechanism of universal jurisdiction could be applied to prosecute these violations of international humanitarian laws during armed conflict.” This is the motivation that drives his to fight for justice.
Bility partnered with Werner and they founded their respective organisations to investigate, document, and advocate for the victims of the two civil wars. Werner established non-profit organisation Civitas Maxima in Geneva, Switzerland, while Bility founded the GJRP in Monrovia, Liberia. GJRP focused on investigating and documenting human rights violations during the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, providing legal assistance and psychosocial support to victims and witnesses willing to testify against perpetrators. Civitas Maxima represents victims of international crimes before national and international courts, filing several cases against alleged war criminals in Europe and Africa to help the victims attain justice.
Having served as a prosecutor for the SCSL between 2005 and 2010, Werner recognised that what had transpired in Sierra Leone to secure justice would not necessarily happen in Liberia.
“A special court was set up to prosecute individuals bearing the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sierra Leone. With a working budget of USD 25 million a year for many years, the Sierra Leonan victims got justice,” Werner said.
He expressed frustration at the lack of progress in prosecuting the perpetrators, saying that in Liberia, up to 250,000 victims need justice, but no special court has been established.
“With many victims of crimes committed in the early 1990s having passed away, if justice is not expedited, some of the perpetrators will die too! And there is no reason these victims should not get justice the way Sierra Leone did.”
The work of Bility and Werner has resulted in landmark arrests, prosecutions, and convictions in the United States, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Finland, with several ongoing investigations.
One of their most notable achievements was the arrest, trial, and conviction of Alieu Kosiah, a former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), a rebel group that fought against Taylor and committed atrocities against Liberian civilians. Kosiah was arrested in Switzerland in 2014 and tried by a Swiss court. On June 18, 2021, he was found guilty of 21 counts of war crimes, including murder, rape, pillage, and recruitment of child soldiers, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was the first person to be tried and convicted for crimes committed during the Liberian civil war.
Another case that GJRP and Civitas Maxima are pursuing is that of Agnes Reeves Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor. She was arrested and charged on June 2, 2017, in the UK with seven counts of torture and one count of conspiracy to commit torture regarding her alleged involvement in the atrocities committed by her husband’s rebel group, NPFL, during the First Liberian Civil War. The charges were, however, dismissed on December 6, 2019, by the Central Criminal Court and she filed a civil claim of “malicious prosecution and wrong” against Bility and Werner. Civitas Maxima and GJRP consider this an attempt to silence victims’ quest for justice.
Bility and Werner also played a prominent role in the conviction of Mohammed Jabbateh, aka Jungle Jabbah, a former commander of ULIMO who was convicted in the US in 2017 for immigration fraud and perjury for lying about his role in the war. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison after Civitas Maxima and GJRP helped the American authorities to investigate and document the crimes he committed in Liberia.
Their efforts to bring Gibril Massaquoi, a former commander and spokesman of the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to justice were met with disappointment when he was acquitted despite the evidence they provided. An appeal is currently underway.
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Other cases that the two organisations are pursuing involve Kunti K., a former ULIMO commander; Sekou Kamara, an alleged former high-ranking member of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD); Martina Johnson, a former commander of the NPFL; Moses Wright, an alleged former member of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL); and Thomas Woewiyu, a former NPFL spokesperson and minister of defence.
Their efforts to seek justice for the victims have not been without challenges and GJRP and Civitas Maxima continue to face attacks because of their work, the most recent case being the Agnes Taylor counter-lawsuit. Nevertheless, their commitment has earned them recognition.
“These cases would not be possible without the amazing work of the GJRP and other Liberian and international civil society actors who have rigorously, reliably, and with unwavering integrity worked to keep the dream of justice alive,” said the US War Crimes Ambassador, Beth Van Schaack, in an open letter to the people of Liberia in December 2022.
Werner is not impressed by the lack of action from the international community. He criticised the silence of organisations such as the African Union and the UN.
“This silence has led to a lawsuit by the Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) against Liberia for failing to bring perpetrators to justice,” he said.
He said he supported local courts, adding that he believes Africa can successfully prosecute these crimes.
Adama Dempster’s advocacy efforts align with Werner’s call for the establishment of a local court in Liberia. He has been lobbying the government, the parliament, the UN, and the international community to support the creation of a hybrid court with jurisdiction over crimes committed during the civil war. He also engages with victims and survivors to raise awareness and mobilise support for the hybrid court.
Dempster is also a member of the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), a network of activists and experts that advises the government on the implementation of the TRC recommendations.
The TRC argued that a hybrid court as a follow-up mechanism to the SCSL would ensure that justice is done for a larger number of victims and perpetrators and that it would enhance national ownership and capacity building in the justice sector. It also proposed that the hybrid court apply both international and national law and that it be composed of both international and national judges and staff.
According to Human Rights Watch, some politicians and former combatants are opposed to the hybrid court, fearing that it would reopen old wounds and destabilise the fragile peace. Donors are reluctant to fund another expensive tribunal after the SCSL, which cost over 300 million USD. Legal experts, on their part, are concerned about the compatibility of a hybrid court with the existing amnesty law and the constitutional provisions on double jeopardy and fair trial. Security officials are worried about the potential backlash from armed groups or individuals who may target witnesses or judges. Some citizens are sceptical about the benefits of a hybrid court, preferring reconciliation or development over retribution.
Bility still holds out hope for a Liberia that prioritises justice and human rights.
“My wish is for Liberia to address the violations of human rights and humanitarian law that occurred during its civil wars. I look forward to the day Liberia establishes a war crimes court that can fairly prosecute those who committed these heinous crimes against their fellow citizens. This is necessary to prevent future violence and to uphold the rights of victims.”