Pressure Mounts for War and Economic Crimes Court, Despite Senate’s Apparent Opposition

MONROVIA, Montserrado – Calls to establish a war and economic crimes court in Liberia continue to gain momentum, despite a warning from the Liberian Senate to President George Weah to avoid “reopening old wounds.”

In 2019, after much pressure from civil society groups, Weah appealed to world leaders at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly for the U.N.’s support to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, including the establishment of a special tribunal to try individuals accused of committing war and economic crimes during the country’s 14-year civil war.

In a letter to the legislature on September 12, 2019, Weah also called on the legislature to advise and provide guidance on the implementation of recommendations of the TRC, including the establishment of a war and economic crimes court.

Since then, progress on the court’s establishment has largely stalled. On June 21, however, the Liberian Senate’s leadership signed a resolution recommending that the president establish a transitional justice commission that would analyze the credibility or legitimacy issues surrounding the final report of the TRC, rather than establishing a war and economic crimes court to try alleged criminals that would “open old wounds.”

All members of the Senate’s leadership committee signed the resolution except Sen. Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence of Grand Bassa, who heads the Committee on Rules, Order, and Administration. Karnga-Lawrence is also the political leader of the Liberty Party and current chair of the opposition bloc, the Collaboration Political Parties.

The Senate’s resolution also called on the president to make a formal apology on behalf of the state to the thousands of victims and the Liberian people in general for its role in the long civil war. This was one of the recommendations of the TRC.

The Liberian Senate’s action appeared to be prompted by the activities of another legislative body thousands of miles away. It occurred on the same day as the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus of the United States House of Representatives, began a hearing to address numerous calls for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court in Liberia.

Several U.S. members of Congress attended the virtual hearing, including Rep. James McGovern and Rep. Chris Smith, the commission’s chair and co-chair, respectively, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. The hearing also featured five witnesses – mostly activists campaigning for the court’s establishment. They were the executive director of the Movement for Justice in Liberia, Ysyndi Martin-Kepyei; the executive director of the International Justice Group and former head of the TRC, Jerome Verdier; Michael Mueller, who chairs the Global Initiative for Justice; and Alan White, former chief investigator of the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The witnesses noted the prominent role that war criminals play in Liberian society and the culture of impunity that persists and allows the country to be a major hideout for war criminals and human rights abusers.

U.S. Congressman Smith called for a public statement from U.S. President Joseph Biden on the situation in Liberia.

“I think a public statement is necessary, and perhaps a public statement from the president himself on this matter will help put some pressure,” he said.

However, even as activists lobbied to gain support from Liberia’s most important ally for the court’s establishment, on June 24, the Liberian Senate accepted the resolution from its leadership that threatened to derail efforts to establish the court. Members of the Senate voted to endorse the leadership’s decision amid heated debate on the floor. The body agreed to continue further deliberations and invite experts to a public hearing on the matter.

On that same day, the Liberia National Bar Association, the umbrella organization for lawyers in the country and the Civil Society Coalition for War and Economic Crimes Court, submitted a bill to the National Legislature to establish the much-debated court.

Presenting the bill, prominent human rights lawyer and president of the Bar, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe told lawmakers that it was time to muster the courage to put an end to the country’s sad chapter.

“The Bar Association, in exercise of this responsibility and patriotism, drafted the law and made 105 copies for the lawmakers. That’s how far we have gone to make this happen to show the zeal and enthusiasm that we have. We appeal to you not to let this zeal die,” Gongloe told lawmakers.

“If we, as a people, do not take steps to hold people accountable, it means that first, we are co-conspirators in the killing of those people, and we applaud those who did it and are encouraging people to do more. Liberia cannot be a country where when you slap a person, you can be arrested, when you kill one person, you can be arrested and jailed, but when you kill 500 to 1,000 people or more, then society says that’s OK. When we do that, we are encouraging people to commit more crimes.”

He said it was time the country followed the footsteps of Sierra Leone and Rwanda by setting up the court to end the culture of impunity and gain the world’s confidence.

Featured photo by Zeze Ballah

Gbatemah Senah

Senah is a graduate of the University of Liberia and a recipient of the Jonathan P. Hicks Scholarship for Mass Communications. Between 2017 and 2019, he won six excellent reporting awards from the Press Union of Liberia. They include a three-time Land Rights Reporter of the Year, one time Women's Rights Reporter of the Year, Legislative Reporter of the Year, and Human Rights Reporter of the Year.

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