Is Liberia Ready for War Crime Tribunal? Liberian people are divided

A conference in New York earlier this month has renewed debate about one key recommendation of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Delegates, including TRC Chairman Jerome J. Verdier, said the time has come to prosecute 182 Liberians accused in the report of war crimes.

But Front Page Africa interviews with Liberians in Monrovia found ordinary Liberians are still deeply divided over whether alleged war criminals should face justice. While many feel the country cannot move forward until justice is achieved, others worry security is not yet strong enough to dig up old wounds.

“I was greatly affected by the war,” says Phillip P Norrington Junior, a student (where??) playing scrabble at the famous ah-ta-yee shop on Carey Street, downtown. “I lost my house. I lost my sister. My family went helter scelter. Some of them I don’t even know where they are today.” But, he says, “for Liberia to move forward, we should forget about a war crimes tribunal. We’re talking about empowering people’s lives.”

Many people interviewed by Front Page Africa share Norrington’s concern that prosecutions of those named in the report, including those now serving in government such as Senator(???) Prince Johnson and ??, would reignite the conflict that claimed as many as 250,000 lives. They say they would rather forgo justice for their dead relatives than risk a return to the horrors of war.

Support for amnesty for war criminals is growing in Liberia. A 2010 survey of 1000 Liberians affected by the war by US academic David Backer found almost half now support amnesty. In a similar survey 3 years ago support for amnesty was much lower. In other post conflict countries such as Rwanda and South Africa amnesty has also become more popular as time goes on.

The TRC process recommended reprieve from prosecution for 38 individuals who participated in the process and admitted to commiting “heinous acts”. Among those was warlord Joshua Blahyi, also known as General Butt Naked. The 182 recommended for prosecution refused to participate with the commission.

Many of those Liberians opposed to a war crimes tribunal say they believe a trial is impossible given that several of those 182 individuals accused of war crimes are serving in government. (President Ellen Johson Sirleaf was not among those accused of war crimes. She is one of 49 the report says should be banned from political office for 30 years for her early support of Charles Taylor.)

“The perpetrators are holding high positions in Government,” says Melissa, a young mother in a striking striking yellow and blue African suit, working quietly on a computer in a windowless office. She does not want to give her last name because (????). “You cannot say they will persecute themselves. Talking about bring war crimes court I don’t see the possibility.”

But many say they can’t move on.

“I have seen the devastation caused by the barrel of guns,” says Gboko John Stewart, walking on his way to work in Congo Town, dressed in a smart suit and a pair of black shoes. He says he lost many family members and friends during the war.  “Warlords and their cohorts should not be allowed to walk down the stairs of impunity,’ he says.  “The TRC report must be implemented to the fullest.”

Elisha Johnson, a history teacher at the E. Wilmont Blyden Presbyterian School in Monrovia, agrees. “Myself I feel it is necessary to have a war crime court,” he says. ”You cannot come and kill people and go in vein.”

Ma Melissa worries that if those identified in the report are not prosecuted it will encourage other would-be warlords to think they can kill, rape and torture without penalty.

“People are saying let bygone be bygone,” said says. “If we continue to say ‘Let bygone be bygone’ it is like you are creating more room for conflict. People will say Prince Johnson did it nothing came out of it. I am going to do mine and nothing will happen.

The TRC report has been controversial since it was released. Opponents of the process and international observers were critical of gaps in evidence. There was dissension among commissioners, two of whom refused to endorse it.

President Johnson Sirleaf committed to a review of the report in her State of the Nation address in January this year and in March she directed her Ministry of Justice and Law Reform Commission to undertake the review. But the government has been slowed to address aspects of the report. There is real concern among observers that alleged perpetrators will continue to point to the report’s problems as a way to head off any efforts to prosecute them.

At the New York conference Jerome J. Verdier, the TRC Chairperson, said the memory and scars of the war were very, very fresh in the minds of the people.  He said the TRC recommendations must be implemented in Liberia for justice to take its course. Mr. Verdier pointed out that it is the only way for Liberia to learn from its history.

Another commissioner, journalist Massa Washington told the gathering Liberians are behind the TRC report. “We take strength from the people of Liberia; the TRC report has raised huge controversy because we dared for once in the process of transitional justice to say, ‘Well you know what we do not have to be traditional.’ We have to look at the Liberia within her own unique individual context and then carve out recommendations for the future of Liberia,” the TRC commissioner said.

Ms. Washington said an overwhelming majority of Liberians want to end impunity in Liberia. “None of the recommendations that you see in the TRC report was the result of the commissioners just sitting down and thinking we know it all. All of the recommendations came from people of Liberia.”