Why the International War Crimes Trials of Liberians Matter

Child soldiers with the United Liberia Movement of Liberia for Democracy during the civil war


PARIS, France – The trial of former Ulimo battalion commander, Kunti Kamara aka “Kunti K.” ends its third week. Kamara is being tried for crimes against humanity, torture, forced labor and acts of barbarism, in the town of Foya in Lofa Country, Western Liberia, where the accused has admitted he was stationed for four months in 1993. More than a dozen Liberian witnesses appearing before the panel of three judges and 6 jurors have recounted terrifying stories of how Kunti K. and fellow Ulimo commanders, allegedly forced the civilian population under harsh conditions to trek hundreds of miles to and from the Guinean border with looted items including dismantled parts of an electric plant, cars, motorbike engines and household items. The “forced marches” as they are referred to by the court, often happened without food, water or rest stops and those expressing or exhibiting exhaustion were flogged or killed for slowing down.

The trial has heard testimonies from victims as well as secondary witnesses of rape, gang-rape, looting, arson, murder, mass murder and cannibalism, all allegedly meted out against the population of Foya. The accused has denied all the allegations. He has admitted being a battalion commander of Ulimo but said his activities were limited to “the battlefront”. Kunti has also acknowledged knowing, and in some instances, interacting with Ulimo fighters whose names featured prominently in these proceedings. Among them are “Ugly Boy”, “Fine Boy”, “Deku”, Alieu Kosiah and Mohammed Dumbuyan, all of whom witnesses have cited as being responsible for allegedly committing some of the most horrifying crimes. Kunti said he reported to his commanders: Deku and Mohammed Dumbuyan.

I have had a front row seat at this trial as I have at trials of Mohammed Jabateh and Thomas Woewiyu in my adopted city of Philadelphia, USA. On some occasions, as in this one, I am called on to testify about my role as a journalist during the first civil war where I witnessed suffering that still haunts me. I am also called to testify about my role as one of nine commissioners on the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which heard the wrenching testimonies of 22,000 survivors of this brutal and depraved war. The questions I am asked by lawyers, journalists and court watchers in every case are: why is this trial happening here in Paris with French judges and juries or in Philadelphia with American judges and juries? Why is it not taking place at home in Liberia? And how do Liberians feel about these trials taking place so far away?

This is what I tell them:

TRC Commissioner Massa Washington talks with New Narratives’ Anthony Stephens outside the Paris Court

It has been 19 years since the end of the Liberian civil war and the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) that paved the way for peace. As part of ensuring post war stability, promotion of peace, national unity and reconstruction the CPA called for the creation of institutions including a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would investigate what happened in Liberia. The TRC would be tasked with advancing recommendations that would address accountability, peace and reconciliation. It has been 13 years since the end of the work of the TRC and submission of its final report with recommendations for how to move the country forward. Key amongst the recommendations was the establishment of a War Crimes Court to hold accountable those bearing the greatest responsibility for the gross human rights violations committed during the war. To date, nobody in Liberia has been held accountable for major crimes committed during in the war. There have been two democratically elected governments since then and neither has mustered the courage or the political will to implement the TRC recommendations.

For now, this justice is all they have.

As we all know, some of those named in the TRC’s Final Report -including major warlords – are in government, holding high profile public offices including in the House of Representatives and the Senate. These warlords and their cohorts also have economic strength since their political positions afford them the opportunity to amass wealth at the expense of their victims whom they now rule. They are some of the richest Liberians today.

This situation creates a precarious position for the creation of the war crimes court. Despite resounding calls for accountability from broad-based Liberians and members of the international community, the legislature, which has received two bills to create a court, has sat on its hands. In January 2018 eighty regional national and international civil society groups issued an open letter calling upon President George Weah to implement the TRC recommendations and establish the war crimes court. Later that year the United Nations Human Rights Committee also called on the Government of Liberia to establish a process to bring about accountability for past war crimes. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States Congress passed a resolution affirming its support for the full implementation of the TRC recommendations and called upon the Government of Liberia to establish the war crimes court. Unfortunately, all such calls have been ignored. The Government of Liberia has provided zero inclination that the war crimes court will happen. The entrenched culture of impunity in Liberia, lack of political will and courage on the part of the current Liberian Government means hope by the Liberian people for wartime accountability remains elusive.

Kunti K. is the second person being tried directly for crimes allegedly committed in Liberia. The first to answer for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Liberia was Alieu Kosiah, also a former Ulimo commander, who was arrested, tried, convicted by a Swiss court, and sentenced to 20 years. Kosiah is appealing his conviction. Jabateh aka “Jungle Jabbah” and Thomas Woewiyu, former Defense Minister of the NPFL of Charles Taylor, accused of committing similar crimes, were instead convicted for lying about their war time activities on their immigration forms to gain legal status in the United States.

For now all the victims of the conflict can do is utilize international instruments to seek justice outside of Liberia. Liberia is a member of the United Nations and signed the UN Human Rights Declaration and other global human rights charters. The current Kunti K. trial is being held under the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction” which states that crimes committed against all of humanity know no borders and can be tried anywhere in the world. For victims who continue to wait, hoping for justice, these trials represent their best hope for any iota of justice.

For such Liberians, these trials serve as validation of the pain and suffering at the hands of their abusers.

Finally alleged perpetrators who once saw themselves as being invincible and untouchable are held accountable in a court of law. The trials says that Liberians have not been forgotten by the rest of the world. Once powerless, depressed and hopeless victims of the war are being resuscitated with hope that justice can occur even if it is outside of Liberia and adjudicated by strangers. For now this justice is all they have.

This commentary was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West African Justice Reporting Project.