Liberia: ‘No War Crimes Court’, Say Some Victims

Monrovia – Fabine Kwiah was only a child when she and her two elder brothers Paul and Josephus Kwiah fled Fendell to Clara Town amid fierce fighting between soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and rebels of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). It was 1990 and the AFL soldiers—loyal to then President Samuel Doe—recognized her brother as a fighter in the INPFL. He had joined, Kwiah says, to protect the family from the INPFL, because their name sounds the same as “Quiah”, a common Krahn or Sapo name.

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

“He was stripped, tied up and thrown into the river to die,” Kwiah, now a journalist with state radio ELBC, says.

Ms. Fabine Kwiah works as a journalist at the state-run ELBC.

At the next checkpoint, Kwiah was threatened when an AFL soldier put a knife to her eye and cut into her face. She and Josephus, overwhelmed by grief and fear, managed to flee the city. Like thousands of other Liberians – half the population was displaced by the war – they struggled to survive the next 13 years of off and on fighting.

Still, Kwiah does not want to see the soldiers who killed her brother go to jail. She is one of many Liberians who are opposing calls for a war crimes court in the country. The TRC Report recommends more than 100 former rebels and heads of the warring factions they fought for be tried in an extraordinary criminal tribunal. International and local advocates have escalated demands for a court in the last year. But opponents like Kwiah worry that a court will once again stir up tension and take the country back to war. “Let by-gones be by-gones,” goes the popular saying.  

 “I will just let it go and forgive who did what they did to our family,” Kwiah says. “A court will not bring my brother back.”

Ali Sylla, an activist and founding member of the Liberia Peace and Reconciliation Movement, also opposes the court. His group advocates for victims of war crimes to go through a process of “Restorative” Justice – a form of transitional justice that emphasizes the repair of harm done to victims through a process of victim empowerment and reparations (financial payments to victims). It is the opposite of “Retributive” justice, where perpetrators are tried and then jailed or fined.

There has not been a more recent survey, but in 2010 the Human Rights Council at the University of California surveyed Liberians and found that about 57 percent of the population was in favor of restorative justice.

“When you try to prosecute Liberians through a court, many Liberians will go to jail for no reason, because of the deep-rooted history of our country that includes marginalization, political degradation, institutional degradation and no political participation of the indigenous Liberians,” says Sylla whose father and two brothers were killed during the war.

“We are saying, in order to reconcile this country, we have to look at the root causes…of the civil war as well as constitutional reform and national healing, reparation and restitution,” Sylla says.  

Sylla says he would like to see the huge amounts of money that are spent on courts go instead to the victims to help them rebuild their lives.

Amos Toe of Pleebo, Maryland County, who lost 13 relatives to the war, agrees with Sylla. “I think to accept a war crimes court in Liberia…will be reawakening the minds of people who got victimized in the war,” he says.

In Sierra Leone, victims of the civil war there have never received reparations but there was a UN-backed Special Court that tried the top 20 perpetrators including former Liberian President Charles Taylor. (He was convicted for his role in Sierra Leone and is serving a 50-year sentence in a UK prison.) Many of the witnesses said the tribunal provided a great relief to them allowing them to testify in court and see some measure of justice done.

Rwanda had a dual process of retributive and restorative justice (the same combination recommended in Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Report) which saw many perpetrators extradited to Arusha in Tanzania to face trial. This year Rwanda will commemorate 25 years since the 1994 genocide which saw the murder of an estimated 800,000 people, primarily of the Tutsi tribe. Rwanda has enjoyed peace and one of the strongest economies in Africa in the wake of the killings.

At a justice conference in November last year, Stephen Rapp, the former prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, touched on the issue. “I think it is very important to prevent crimes, to deter, to protect our children.”

Efforts at restorative justice in Liberia have bared little fruit. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed Leymah Gbowee, a fellow Nobel laureate, as Peace Ambassador to lead the process. A year after her appointment she resigned, accusing former President Sirleaf of doing little to address corruption and reconciliation in the country. The second effort was led by the current president George Weah who was then head of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change. Weah’s term was also marred by controversies.  Up to date, the few national monuments in honor of victims that were commissioned are yet to be completed. Communities are divided on things like religion and ethnicity, according to a 2018 Social Cohesion and Reconciliation Survey (SCORE). Victims have not been paid reparations and people are still carrying scars of the war. 

Human Rights Commissioner James Torh says that the two efforts failed because they refused to work with the Independent Human Rights Commission.

“If you were doing reconciliation in this country you needed to come to us and say, ‘Look, lets hold a conversation,’” says Torh.

Human Rights Commissioner Wilfred Gray-Johnson says the failed efforts at restorative justice have pushed more people to call for retributive justice, because little has been done to restore the victims.

 “Some of the very people who are recorded allegedly as perpetrators of violence are some of the people who masquerade around town today calling themselves heroes and campions.   Since the TRC Report was launched [over] nine years has been a long time and several persons are even more angry that nothing has been done,” Gray-Johnson says.  “I am afraid maybe were we to do another survey more people now would opt for retributive forms of justice”

The TRC report calls for both a war crimes court and a process of restorative justice Sylla prefers. The report calls for a palaver hut forum, war memorials, a national day of mourning and payments of reparations. “This will hasten reintegration and reconciliation and community-based atonement,” it says.

For Kwiah, forgiving her brother’s killers has not been easy. She once recognized the soldier who killed her brother and pointed him out onboard a public bus. Fellow travelers pulled him off the bus and beat him. Kwiah said at the time the memories were still raw. If she saw him today, she would not identify him again.

“As a Liberian, even though we lost our brother in the process and he would not come back because it has already happened, so I will just let it be,” she says.