US Amb. On War Crimes Decries “Corrosive Impunity” in Liberia, Backs Work of Justice Advocate, Hassan Bility

U.S. Amb. on Beth Van Schaack U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for Global Criminal Justice. Credit: U.S. State Dept.

MONROVIA – Beth Van Schaack, U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for Global Criminal Justice has warned that impunity for past and current crimes remains high in Liberia. Ambassador Schaack says this weakens the country’s peace. 

“Liberia faces many challenges when it comes to justice and accountability,” says Schaack in an open letter to Liberians seen by FPA/NN. “Not only for the terrible war crimes committed during two consecutive civil wars, but also for subsequent crimes and corruption. Impunity is corrosive.” Schaack says “when it is allowed to flourish in one sector, it will undermine the foundations of peace and the rule of law across an entire society.”

By Anthony Stephens with New Narratives

Liberia has yet to set up a special tribunal to prosecute alleged perpetrators of crimes during its two civil wars, despite overwhelming calls for the court from Liberians and foreigners alike. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) also recommended the court in its final report. Schaack herself pledged the US financial and technical support for the court during her visit to Liberia in October—the clearest direct endorsement for the court yet by the US government.

But the Liberian Legislature, which has the constitutional power and authority to set up the court, has apparently downplayed the significance of the court. The Senate wants President George Weah to set up a transitional justice commission to review the TRC recommendations, while the House has asked its members to consult their constituents on the highly controversial matter. President Weah, who had called for the court prior to becoming President, has backtracked on his statement in an apparent exchange of support for his re-election from Prince Johnson, a Senator of Nimba County, Liberia’s second most populous county. Named in the TRC report as the most notorious perpetrator, Johnson supported Weah’s election in 2017. 

But Ambassador Schaack wants Liberia’s leaders not to ignore the cry of ordinary citizens.

“The overwhelming message we heard on our visit was a call for those with the power to do so to implement the important recommendations of the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (TRC),” she says. “These recommendations reflect the wisdom of Liberian leaders and experts in law, human rights, theology, and journalism.”

Schaack praises Liberians for their support for the court.

“It was inspiring to hear such a sustained desire for justice from Liberians,” she says. “And I thank those who shared their thoughts and hopes with me. It is my hope that these aspirations, and expectations, will be met by those entrusted with the power to fulfil them, in service of the lasting and just peace the people of Liberia deserve.”

Singling out Bility

GJRP Director Hassan Bility with US Ambassador Michael McCarthy in 2021

Schaack also commends the work of the Liberian human rights organization, the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), which has worked with its Swiss partner, Civitas Maxima (CM) to document the alleged crimes of Liberian warlords.

Their work has seen the direct or indirect prosecutions and convictions of many individuals for their roles during the wars. Some of them include Kunti Kamara, a former battlefront commander of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy, (Ulimo), who was sentenced by a French criminal court last month to lifetime in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity, torture and aggravated acts of barbarism and Alieu Kosiah, another former Ulimo commander who was sentenced in June 2021 by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court to 20 years in jail for war crimes. The court’s appeal chamber is however hearing Kosiah’s case beginning next month, January.

In 2018, Mohammed Jabateh, commonly known as “Jungle Jabbah” another former Ulimo commander was sentenced to 30 years in jail for perjury and immigration fraud by a US district court in Philadelphia. Tom Woewiyu, number two to Charles Taylor, a former Liberian President, in Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia structure was also convicted of perjury and immigration fraud by a district court in Philadelphia. But he died of Covid in 2020, as he awaited his sentence.

Schaack acknowledges the organizations’ work.

“These cases would not be possible without the amazing work of the Global Justice and Research Project (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,” says Schaack. “Liberians can be proud of the work of their compatriots in the GJRP who are working hard to support war crimes accountability.”

Liberians have also largely praised the two organizations for pushing for accountability for past crimes.

But the GJRP and CM have come in for rebukes, mainly from alleged perpetrators, including Agnes Reeves Taylor, Taylor’s ex-wife, Kamara and Kosiah who have questioned their credibility and accused them of coaching and bribing witnesses. Some witnesses during the trial of Gebril Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean rebel leader, prosecuted in Finland for his alleged atrocities in Liberia’s second civil war, also made the same charges against the human rights organizations. But they have repeatedly denied such allegations.

Schaack raises concern about threats against Bility and his staff. She does not however name those who are making such alleged threats but wants the matter to claim the attention of all Liberians.

“They should also be concerned, as am I, that the GJRP’s work has resulted in threats and intimidation against their staff members.”

Bility agrees with Schaack that it’s time to end impunity for past crimes and commends her for singling them out.

“I am motivated by the fact that the US is standing with us firmly,” says Bility in a WhatsApp message to us. “I believe we are doing a good job and I’m happy for the recognition coming the the US.”

But just like Ambassador Schaack, Bility makes no identification of who has allegedly threatened him, or his workers.

“Without naming names, because this is legal matter, the threats come from those who oppose justice and accountability in Liberia,” he says. “Those who murdered innocent Liberians and want to go with impunity. They are those who have been prosecuted and their allies, as well as those who think they could get prosecuted.They come from all disbanded factions. But some are more intense than others. Honestly, I have no clues.”

Bility does not also want to comment on whether bribery allegations against them by witnesses in Massaquoi’s trial could gain traction with juries in the US, where Moses Wright and Sekou Kamara, alias “K-1” are expected to go on trial later in 2023.

“I can’t comment on the Massaquoi case because it’s ongoing,” he says.

Bility is currently in Brussels, Belgium attending the European Union NGO Forum on Human Rights under the theme: “Stop Impunity.” Bility and the over 200 delegates at the conference, including from the US, Europe and Africa are discussing war crimes evidence collection/gathering.

This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of its West Africa Justice Reporting Project.