Background Briefing

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Accountability for Past Abuses

The 1996 peace accord granted a general amnesty to faction fighters for abuses committed “in the course of actual military engagements.” Those responsible for committing some of the worst atrocities during the war were neither punished for their actions nor effectively demobilized. For the next six years at least, former faction fighters—particularly those of Taylor’s faction, the NPFL —continued to act with impunity and remained a serious impediment to continued peace. Human Rights Watch believes that the failure to adequately ensure justice for past crimes had catastrophic consequences for civilians and greatly contributed to Liberia’s failed transition in 1997.

In Liberia currently, the continued existence of the command and control structures of the former factions means that former commanders can mobilize ex-fighters quickly. The continued impunity of those commanders who committed or organized the most serious atrocities during the war could well serve to embolden them and undermine Liberia’s chances of lasting peace and stability. 60

Truth and Reconciliation Commission  

On June 10, 2005, after months of delay, the chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia signed into law an act establishing the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 61  The newly elected government must provide considerable political and financial backing for the work of the TRC. It must resist any attempt to influence the TRC’s findings, including recommendations on individuals who should be prosecuted. It must also work with the international community to ensure that the commission has adequate funding.

The TRC is mandated to conduct a thorough investigation and publish a report documenting gross human rights violations, violations of international humanitarian law, and, importantly, economic crimes, such as the exploitation of natural resources to perpetuate armed conflict, that occurred between January 1979 and October 14, 2003.62 In addition, it will “recommend” that amnesty be granted to persons making “full disclosures of their wrongs” and “expressing remorse for their acts,” with the proviso that amnesty will not apply to serious violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity.63  Finally, the TRC will make recommendations to the government about reparations, the need for legal and other institutional reforms, and the need to hold prosecutions in certain cases, presumably those cases involving crimes against humanity.64

The TRC—which will have about two years to complete its work—was to be established within three months of the enactment of the law. Upon establishment, it will have another three months to prepare for the commencement of its mandatory functions.65 The TRC will be composed of nine commissioners, with no less than four women. The commissioners should reflect a balance of Liberia’s diverse religious, ethnic and regional make-up. They are required to resist any attempt to influence the direction of the TRC’s inquiry by the government, ruling party, former leaders of the warring factions, and other political parties or groups.

One potential problem which could undermine the TRC’s success is the lack of adequate funding. Currently, the TRC is operating on a budget of $100,000 and is housed in the looted Public Works Building without electricity.66 Human Rights Watch is concerned that commencing operations without adequate funds could compromise the commission’s work and public confidence in it, and is calling on donor governments to ensure that it is fully funded.

As the TRC proceeds, there will no doubt be considerable pressure on the commissioners to refrain from recommending for prosecution those individuals alleged to be most responsible for human rights crimes.  Given the history of violence in Liberian political and social life, any attempt to influence, pressure or intimidate the commissioners’ recommendations must be met with definitive action by the newly elected Liberian government and the international community.  


Much debate exists in Liberia about whether to prosecute those individuals responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the country’s armed conflicts.  While some church, human rights and other civil society leaders have repeatedly stressed the importance of gross perpetrators facing justice for their crimes, the prevailing opinion among Liberian government officials, ECOWAS representatives, and Western governments has been that any hint of prosecutions could undermine efforts to consolidate the peace process. They have also intimated that after the elections, it will be up to the new government to take a position on the issue. 

Interviews with Liberian human rights activists and a recent survey of public attitudes about the importance of accountability for abuses committed during the war suggest that considerable support exists for limited prosecutions of those responsible for the most serious violations. A survey commissioned by the Liberian Transitional Justice Working Group on attitudes about justice for past atrocities found that fifty-nine percent of Liberians believe that faction leaders and commanders alleged to have ordered or committed widespread human rights abuses should be prosecuted in formal legal proceedings.67 Liberian civil society leaders are also adamant that individuals who committed serious human rights violations should eventually be prosecuted.68 It is a conviction among these activists that the TRC, which will recommend prosecutions in certain cases, is the first step towards holding certain individuals accountable in the courts.69

The newly elected government must demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights both now and in the future by committing to prosecute key individuals responsible for atrocities that marked Liberia’s armed conflicts.  Holding accountable those individuals on all sides responsible for serious international crimes committed in the Liberian wars is an indispensable part of combating the historic culture of impunity and ensuring that peace and stability in Liberia take root.

Those organizations working to consolidate stability in Liberia, namely the United Nations, the United States, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), must work to develop a concrete strategy to bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for the most serious human rights crimes committed. Given serious concerns about the ability and willingness of the Liberian national courts to try these crimes as well as concerns about the degree of social and political instability in the country, justice for victims of serious international crimes in Liberia will likely require considerable support and engagement from the international community. 

Prosecutions in Liberia could take several forms including:  1) pursuing justice using the existing criminal justice system within Liberia; 2) creating a purely international criminal tribunal; 3) creating a mixed international-national tribunal similar to the Special Court for Sierra Leone; or 4) establishing a chamber within the domestic justice system of Liberia that includes the participation of international judges and staff.

Human Rights Watch takes the view that national courts have primary responsibility for prosecutions of crimes committed within national borders. However, when national justice systems are unwilling or unable to prosecute serious violations of international law, alternative judicial mechanisms, such as an international or mixed national-international tribunal, may be necessary to ensure that justice is done. Given the political and technical sensitivities of such prosecutions in Liberia, it is likely that considerable foreign involvement will be required.

The Case of Charles Taylor

In the words of one human rights activist: “Prosecuting Charles Taylor would be a groundbreaking moment in the fight against impunity in West Africa. If we want to create a new society, Charles Taylor cannot be left alone in Nigeria.”70 Jacques Klein, the former SRSG in Liberia, readily admitted that “Charles Taylor is a dark cloud over everything we do here.”71

Despite mounting international pressure from African countries, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, Nigeria continues to resist surrendering Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The first public call for Nigeria to surrender Taylor to face trial came from the European Parliament in February 2005 in the form of a resolution. In May 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed similar resolutions. During a visit to West Africa in July 2005, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called for Taylor to appear for trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone and for African leaders to urge President Obasanjo to hand over Taylor. Also in July 2005, the Mano River Union issued a communiqué, which agreed to call for a review of Taylor's temporary stay in Nigeria.72

The newly elected government must as a matter of priority ask Nigeria to surrender Charles Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone for prosecution.  Given that Taylor’s prosecution by the SCSL does not preclude him from being tried for crimes he allegedly committed in Liberia, the new government must also ensure that he is held accountable for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity he is accused of having committed in Liberia.

[60] An investigation into the causes of an October 2004 riot in the Monrovia suburb of Paynesville that killed about twenty persons and injured more than 100 concluded that “the lingering command structures of the warring factions were significant factors leading to, and subsequently aggravating, the October incident.”  Specifically, the report cited meetings of generals of the defunct NPFL and a leadership crisis within LURD as creating an “atmosphere of sustained anxiety, tension, and vulnerability” in the weeks preceding the violence. See “Investigative Report of the October 28-31, 2004 Violence Submitted by the National Commission to Investigate the October 28-31 Public Disorder and Rioting,”p. 10-11.

[61] According to interviews with U.N. personnel and Liberian human rights activists in March and April 2004, the process was delayed so as to correct the premature appointment of a first set of commissioners by NTGL Chairman Bryant in January 2004. This first set of commissioners was described by human rights activities as “clearly not up to the task.”

[62] “An Act to Establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia,” Article IV, Signed June 10, 2005, Section 4.

[63] Ibid, Article VII, Section 26 (g).

[64] Ibid, Article VII, Section 26 (j).

[65] Ibid, Article IV, Section 5.

[66] Interview with Reverend Gerald Coleman, Acting Chairman, TRC, Monrovia, February 25, 2005.

[67] See Rosner Research Inc., “National Consensus on Dealing With War Crimes Report,” November 16, 2004, p. 11.

[68] Human Rights Watch interviews, Monrovia, February 2005.

[69] Human Rights Watch interviews with civil society leaders and UNMIL Human Rights staff, Monrovia, February 2005.

[70] Human Rights Watch interview with Aloysius Toe, Executive Director, Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy, Monrovia, February 23, 2005.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, February 28, 2005.

[72] Mano River Union communiqué, July 28, 2005.

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