Joseph Boakai, who secured a narrow victory against incumbent George Weah in a November run-off election, is set to be inaugurated as Liberia’s new president on January 22.
The 78-year-old political veteran won the tightly contested race on a promise to address corruption, work towards societal “peace and reconciliation” and deliver justice to the many victims of Liberia’s civil wars (in 1989-1997 and 1999-2003), which killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions of others.
As two decades have passed since the end of the latest round of conflict, and as many accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity are now in their old age, Boakai’s upcoming six-year term as president may be Liberia’s last window for meaningful war crimes accountability and justice.
The task at the hands of the new president, however, is neither straightforward nor easy.
In the past 20 years, several attempts have been made to try and hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable, with little success.
In 2005, following in the footsteps of neighbouring Sierra Leone, which was recovering from its own conflict (a conflict that was very much intertwined with that of Liberia), the Liberian parliament enacted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Four years later, in 2009, the TRC released its final recommendations, including reparations to victims of the civil wars, reforms to prevent atrocities from reoccurring, the establishment of a special court for war crimes, and the banning of certain implicated individuals from holding office until their names are cleared. The commission’s list of persons to be “barred from holding public offices” for “being associated with former warring factions” was extensive and even included then-President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
However, most of TRC’s ambitious recommendations, including the suggested political bans on prominent individuals and establishment of a war crimes tribunal, remain unimplemented to this day. Among other factors, this is largely because civil war actors who attained political power after the war have been using their positions to sabotage attempts at accountability and justice within Liberia.
This is why, over the years, most survivors of the civil war who are looking for judicial justice have had to turn to foreign courts, which have on occasion tried former warlords who settled outside Liberia after the war. In certain cases, these warlords were tried directly for the crimes they committed in Liberia under the principle of universal jurisdiction. In others, they were prosecuted for “immigration fraud” for not declaring their history as a warlord during the immigration process. However, foreign courts managed to try only a small number of individuals to date, and in most cases, survivors of the crimes perpetrated by these individuals who remain in Liberia did not get to follow, and thus meaningfully contribute to and benefit from, these prosecutions.
President-elect Boakai, who hails from Lofa, one of the counties most affected by the horrors of the civil war, has promised to end this reliance on foreign courts and bring justice and accountability back home by establishing a special war crimes tribunal in Liberia.
Nevertheless, many are now questioning the reliability of this commitment because of Boakai’s all-important political alliance with former strongman Prince Yormie Johnson, who is the senator for Liberia’s second-most populous county, Nimba. Senator Johnson, whose support helped guarantee Boakai’s electoral victory, has always been vocal about his opposition to the establishment of a special war crimes tribunal.
The only obstacle in front of the establishment of a tribunal is not Boakai’s problematic political alliances, either. In the past 20 years, Liberian authorities did very little to document war crimes, record eyewitness testimonies, and generally preserve evidence about the war. As a result, proving war crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars has become harder and harder over the years. This lack of adequate record-keeping meant that trials of Liberian warlords taking place in other countries had to rely extensively on witness testimony, which made it increasingly difficult to secure convictions.
After so many years, the witnesses to civil war atrocities may find it hard to accurately recall what they have seen and experienced during the war, as evidenced in some foreign trials. . This means if Boakai does not institute a war crimes tribunal now, and ensure that testimony from all living witnesses is securely recorded, Liberia may never get a chance to meaningfully prosecute war crimes committed during its bloody civil wars.
While it remains uncertain whether Boakai would be able to hold his campaign promise of establishing a special tribunal, and whether such a tribunal would be successful in convicting perpetrators after all these years, there are other, much more straightforward steps the new president could take to deliver justice to survivors, encourage reconciliation, and increase social harmony.
First, he could expand the scope of and increase funding for the few existing community justice and reconciliation mechanisms in the country, such as the Palava Hut Program. This programme, outlined in TRC’s final report in 2009, brings victims and perpetrators of lesser war-related crimes – such as arson, assault, forced displacement, forced labour, destruction, theft of properties, and looting – together in a safe space and allows for truth-telling, forgiveness, and reconciliation under the guidance of traditional elders. Currently, the programme visits only a few towns per year and help a very limited number of people. According to the United Nations, until August 2023, Liberia’s Palava Hut Program resolved only 277 cases that involved only 500 people inclusive of victims and perpetrators. This is despite the fact that hearings started in 2016. With many perpetrators living alongside victims within communities, the scaling up of the Palava Hut Program could deliver justice and foster forgiveness and reconciliation for lesser crimes of the civil wars at a community level. The non-retributive nature of this community justice mechanism also means that it can help address the issue of crimes committed by child soldiers, who cannot be held fully accountable and punished for the heinous acts they carried out under duress and often under the influence of drugs they were forced to take.
Second, the new government could set up a reparation programme for the victims and survivors of Liberia’s civil wars, which could help further societal reconciliation and healing without burdening the state with hard-to-secure prosecutions. While direct reparations might be impracticable as the entire population was directly or indirectly affected by the war, the government could choose to pay reparations to communities that suffered the worst atrocities in the form of community projects and additional public services, such as therapy. A fund could also be set up to provide direct reparations to victims who are suffering physical challenges due to the abuse they endured during the war.
Third, Boakai’s government could support foreign courts prosecuting Liberian war criminals in the diaspora, and encourage future prosecutions by providing these courts with any information they may need about suspects on their radar. The government could also help publicise these trials in Liberia, and give the public a chance to follow the proceedings in real time through local media organisations.
Fourth, the new government could start meaningfully and systematically documenting the many crimes committed during the wars – not only to acknowledge the suffering of the victims, but also to inform future generations and prevent the repeat of such atrocities. A museum documenting the war and its many horrors – and regional memorial parks in recognition and honour of all those who lost their lives to the conflict – could also be established. These initiatives will not cost too much money or cause significant controversy, but they could engender national healing.
“We have a job ahead of us to do and I’m excited that the citizens have given us approval,” Boakai told the media shortly after the results of November’s run-off election were announced. “First and foremost, we want to have a message of peace and reconciliation.”
If Liberia is to truly leave war behind, heal its wounds, and start building itself a prosperous future, the new president has to succeed in delivering that message of “peace and reconciliation”.
The strongest such message would be the establishment of a special tribunal for war crimes that would finally bring justice back home to Liberia. But if the president, like those before him, finds this to be a complicated task, there are still ways in which he could signal to the people that Liberia is ready for reconciliation, development and sustainable peace. Source: aljazeera.com
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.