February 12, 2018
Dear President Weah,
Human Rights Watch wishes to congratulate you on winning Liberia’s recent election. As you take up your new position and consider your priorities for Liberia, we write today to urge you to put justice, accountability, and strengthening rule of law institutions at the very top of your agenda. Specifically, we encourage you to revisit the issue of justice for past crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars, notably by invigorating plans for trials of civil wars-era crimes in order to bring justice to the victims, punish the perpetrators, and strengthen respect for the rule of law.
Human Rights Watch recognizes how far Liberia has come in advancing post-conflict stability, but we firmly believe that securing justice is crucial to sustaining the peace dividends Liberians have worked so hard to realize.
As a nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights in over 90 countries around the world, Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth research on serious human rights violations during Liberia’s two armed conflicts, publishing more than a dozen full-length reports and numerous other documents on human rights violations and war crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars.
Liberia’s brutal armed conflicts (1989-1996 and 1999-2003) were characterized by the commission of widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Liberian citizens were subjected to horrific abuses including summary executions; numerous large-scale massacres; widespread and systematic rape and other forms of sexual violence; mutilation and torture; and large-scale forced conscription and use of child combatants. The violence blighted the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, displaced almost half the population, and virtually destroyed the country’s infrastructure.
We believe that the countless victims of these unspeakable crimes deserve justice for what they have suffered, and that prosecutions of the most serious crimes committed would go a long way toward consolidating and firmly anchoring respect for the rule of law in Liberia, which in turn can help promote a sustainable peace and ensure a foundation for development. Moreover, international law mandates prosecution of those responsible for serious crimes committed in violation of international law—namely genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture.
To date, Liberia has taken steps toward truth-telling, but no effort has been made toward holding to account those responsible for atrocities committed during its two civil wars.
In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report concluded that all warring factions were implicated in serious abuses. The TRC specifically recommended a hybrid international-national tribunal for the atrocities tragically illuminated during its public hearings, including massacres, mutilations, sexual violence, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Although Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about several elements of the TRC’s proposed court statute, the approach of using a hybrid accountability mechanism is welcome. The TRC took an important step in acknowledging that Liberia’s victims deserve justice, and, further yet, by proposing the establishment of the Extraordinary Criminal Court that would be empowered to try individuals accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.
We note with concern that the few cases involving civil wars-era crimes have all occurred outside Liberia before European and US courts, primarily under the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to try grave international crimes even if they were committed abroad by foreigners and against foreigners.
The recent conviction of former ULIMO leader Mohammed Jabbateh in the United States—for fraud and perjury related to his alleged wartime crimes in immigration-related documents—is just the latest in a series of foreign proceedings that have prompted a renewed expectation of justice in Liberia. This past June, the United Kingdom indicted Agnes Reeves Taylor for her alleged role in torture committed during Liberia’s first civil war. In 2014, Belgium and Switzerland arrested Martina Johnson and Alieu Kosiah, former commanders of the NPFL and the ULIMO, respectively, for their roles in war crimes. These criminal investigations are still ongoing. In 2008, Chuckie Taylor was convicted for torture in a US federal court. Finally, in 2015 Michel Desaedeleer, a Belgian-American businessman, was detained in Belgium for his participation in the trade of blood diamonds in Liberia. He died before his trial was due to start in 2016.
While these actions are important, thousands of victims still await their day in court. Human Rights Watch urges your government to:
- Establish an independent committee comprised of government officials, a member of the Independent National Commission of Human Rights, and civil society actors to advise your government on justice and the rule of law headed by a special presidential advisor on justice and the rule of law;
- Organize a national conference to solicit the public’s views on justice and accountability measures;
- Develop a comprehensive public strategy to ensure the prompt investigation and fair prosecution of those from all sides of Liberia’s armed conflicts responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law;
- Revisit the TRC’s draft legislation for an Extraordinary Criminal Court with a view to establish a hybrid court to fairly and effectively prosecute past international crimes committed in Liberia;
- Publicly clarify that there is no amnesty for serious international crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars, including for those who participated in the TRC;
- Ensure adequate support and funding for programs designed to improve Liberia’s judicial and criminal justice system to ensure victims’ access to justice and the right of the accused to a fair trial;
- Support efforts by third countries to bring universal jurisdiction cases for civil wars-era crimes, including by fully cooperating with foreign authorities who request authorization to come to Liberia to investigate international crimes;
- Guarantee protection for human rights defenders inside Liberia against attacks and intimidation, and ensure that those who intimidate or attack human rights defenders are brought to justice.
We respectfully urge your government to take meaningful steps to deliver justice to victims who have suffered and waited for far too long. Human Rights Watch stands ready to support this important endeavor.
International Justice Program
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch