The Quest for War Crimes Court: Who are the International Players?

Monrovia – The call for a Liberian war and economic crimes court has reached new heights since President George Weah became head of state. Campaigners see the ex-football superstar as the best person to muster the political will for a court because he has no known connections to the war.

This story first appeared on FrontPageAfricaOnline as part of a collaboration for the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.

However, as the call intensifies in different parts of the country, opponents of a court are questioning the motives behind the push. Some say it will further divide the nation. Others believe there is no international interest in a court. At local intellectual centers some openly challenge the idea that there is any international support for a court in Liberia.

In fact, a large coalition of international governments and groups are working alongside local groups to put immense pressure on. Here are the major international players:

Civitas Maxima

This is a Swiss organization that is devoted to the independent legal representation of victims of war crimes. Founder Alain Werner, worked in the office of the prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, prosecuting several trials including that of former Liberian President and ex-war lord Charles Taylor. Currently, he represents Liberian plaintiffs in the criminal case for war crimes in Switzerland against Alieu Kosiah, a former commander of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO).

In Liberia, Civitas Maxima partners with the Global Justice Research Project. Their goal is to document war crimes and crimes against humanity. Civitas Maxima has been the driving force behind the arrest, charge and prosecution of a number of cases in Europe and the United States of America involving Liberians over their role in the civil wars. Some include:

  • The arrest in September 2014 in Belgium of Martina Johnson, former artillery commander of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of Charles Taylor. She was the first Liberian to ever be criminally charged for international crimes allegedly committed during the 1st civil war in Liberia (1989-1996). Johnson is currently awaiting trial.
  • The conviction and sentence of 30 years in prison for Mohammed Jabbateh, aka Jungle Jabbah in Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Jabbateh was convicted of four counts of lying to immigration authorities about his war time activities. He was a ULIMO commander.
  • The arrest of Agnes Reeves Taylor, Charles Taylor’s ex-wife, in London in June 2017, charged with torture for her alleged involvement with atrocities committed by Charles Taylor’s rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), during the first Liberian Civil War. Her trial will begin in January.
  • The prosecution of former co-founder, spokesman and Defense Minister of Charles Taylor’s NPFL Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu. A US jury found him guilty of 11 of the 16 counts of immigration fraud in July this year. He faces up to 75 years when he is sentenced in November.

Civitas Maxima is very visible on social media platforms; twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Some of the outreach activities include the Quest for Justice and Musu’s Diary on Facebook.

Center for Justice and Accountability

The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) is a non-profit organization based in San Francisco, California, USA. Founded in 1998, its work is centered on international human rights. CJA is keen on representing victims of torture and other grave human rights abuses.

The organization’s interest in war crimes court for Liberia can be seen in its senior staff attorney, Nushin Sarkarati’s statement when they joined 79 other non-governmental organizations in a letter of petition to Liberia’s President George Weah.

“Liberia has not initiated a single prosecution for the widespread crimes committed against civilians during its wars.”

In the letter the groups urged the Liberian leader to announce his government’s endorsement of justice and reparations for victims of grave crimes during the country’s civil war at the UN General Assembly.

The Center for Justice and Accountability is behind the civil lawsuit filed against Moses Thomas in Philadelphia, USA, where he currently resides, on behalf of the four survivors of the St. Peter Lutheran Church Massacre- the single worst atrocity of the Liberia civil war. An estimated 600 people including children, were allegedly killed by the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) on the night of July 30, 1990.

Thomas, an ex-commander of the Special Anti- Terrorist Unit (SATU) of the AFL, is accused by the four unidentified Liberians of killing their relatives and torturing them. The case is the first case connected to the Lutheran Church massacre- one of the highly reported cases of mass killings during the Liberian wars.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is a world-wide organization with about 7 million members. The groups say it is working towards “a world where human rights are enjoyed by all”.

Amnesty International has been working on justice issues in Liberia since the 1990s. It has contributed to raising international awareness about human rights issues in Liberia, including the documentation of human rights violations committed during the civil war, supporting and providing critic for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation process.

“Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Liberia in 2009 recommended a war crimes court to investigate and try people responsible for grave violations of international law, Liberia has never moved ahead with this recommendation. Liberia should meet its international obligations to prosecute serious crimes and provide justice to victims of the civil wars. Addressing past impunity will provide a stronger basis to prevent and address current human rights issues,” said Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International West Africa Researcher, by email.

This is not the first time Liberia has come under fire from the rights group. In 2008, Amnesty International criticized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) inability to publicize its policies on reparation and prosecution, as well as the commission’s policies on protection for victims, lack of general compassion for those that provided information, and inability to provide individual reparations.

The global human rights organization was also one of many groups to send an open letter to President George Weah, calling on him to take steps to finally bring justice and accountability to the countless victims of Liberia’s fourteen-year armed conflict.

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch is an international human rights organization. It is a non-profit/nongovernmental organization with about 400 staff m embers worldwide.

Their staff members include human rights professionals including country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics from different fields and counties.

Human Rights Watch has worked in Liberia on and off since 2006. They were one of the groups that was behind the arrest and trial Chuckie Taylor, son of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Chuckie, an American citizen, was tried under United States law for committing torture and other human rights abuses during the reign of his father. They were also instrumental in the arrest and surrender of former President Charles Taylor.

Almost all of their work has been in partnership with local, regional and other international activists like Adama Dempster of National Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia, Hassan Bility of Global Justice Research Project and Cllr Tiawon Gongloe.

They are also one of the groups advocating for justice for atrocities in Liberia.  When the TRC report was released, they called for its implementation.  The group has now joined the call for a war crimes court for Liberia. Elise Keppler, Associate Director of the International Justice Program, said by email, “horrific crimes were committed during Liberia’s civil wars – massacres, rapes, mitigation, torture. Victims have the right to see justice done and international law mandates fair, credible prosecutions of the crimes.

Accountability can help build respect for rule of law and a more stable future for Liberia”.

Human Rights Watch was established in 1978.  Their goal is to do “accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting, effective use of media, and targeted advocacy, often in partnership with local human rights groups,” according to its website.

Some of their work include the pushing of about 100 reports on state of human rights in 90 countries around the world.

UN Human Rights Committee

The United Nations Human Rights Committee is a body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by its member states.

In July of 2018, the committee held its first dialogue reviewing the human rights situation with the Liberian government.  The committee said it, “regrets that very few steps have been taken to implement the bulk of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations of 2009.”

The report expressed “concern that none of the alleged perpetrators of gross human rights violations and war crimes mentioned in the TRC report, has been brought to justice, and that some of those individuals are or have been holding official executive positions, including in the government.”

The Committee gave Liberia until mid-2020 to implement a process for achieving justice.

Separately United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed called for the implementation of the TRC recommendations during a visit to Liberia earlier this year.