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Open Letter on the Recommendation by Liberia’s Senate to Establish a Transitional Justice Commission

July 27, 2021

Honorable Bhofal Chambers

Speaker

House of Representatives

44th National Legislature of the Republic of Liberia

Capitol Hill

Monrovia, Liberia

Dear Honorable Speaker,

We write as Liberian and international nongovernmental organizations committed to ensuring justice for victims of serious international crimes perpetrated during Liberia’s civil wars. We are deeply concerned and would like to express our opposition to the Senate’s recent recommendation, which we understand the House of Representatives will also consider, that the President of Liberia set up a Transitional Justice Commission (“TJC”).[1] We believe the proposed TJC would subvert the process foreseen by the Act to Establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (TRC Act) and unnecessarily delay and thwart the establishment of a court to deliver justice to victims of civil wars-era atrocity crimes.

At this stage of Liberia’s transition from the civil wars, the TJC is unnecessary and would be duplicative of the role of the Independent National Human Rights Commission “to ensure that all recommendations contained in the Report of the TRC are implemented,” as laid out in section 46 of the TRC Act. While the Position Paper on which the Senate recommendation is based has sought to suggest that the TRC acted inconsistently with its mandate under section 4 of the TRC Act “to promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” in recommending prosecutions,[2] Section 4 of the TRC Act mandated the TRC to “provid[e] a forum that will address issues of impunity,” and expressly empowered the TRC Commissioners to make recommendations to the Head of State as to the “need to hold prosecutions” in section 26. The TRC did precisely as directed in recommending the establishment of the Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia.  

We also believe that retributive and restorative justice can and should progress in parallel.[3] Prosecutions of serious international crimes are required by international law, are necessary for victims to have redress for crimes that were committed, and they can positively impact societies by signaling that such crimes will not be tolerated in the future. Trials would inevitably be limited to a small number of higher-level alleged perpetrators due to resource and feasibility constraints, which is part of why they can and should act in tandem with broader accountability initiatives, which offer wider opportunities to promote healing across the population. The Position Paper attempts to argue that a 2003 amnesty could or should preclude prosecution, but any such interpretation of a prior amnesty would put Liberia squarely at odds with its international obligations to ensure justice for international crimes.

We have also found that criminal accountability for civil wars-era atrocities has wide support in Liberia. Individuals, families of the victims, and activists have marched in the streets of Monrovia multiple times in recent years calling for accountability and demanding the creation of a war crimes court.[4] The Liberian Bar Association added its support for a war crimes court in April 2019, and the Traditional Chiefs Council and the National Economic Dialogue – attended by 350 Liberians, including members of the government, political parties, youth, and civil society – backed establishment of a war crimes court in September 2019.[5] In addition, more than 50 members of the House of Representatives have endorsed a resolution backing a war crimes court for Liberia.

It is not surprising that those who may have reason to fear the reach of the law are seeking to frustrate criminal accountability. Nevertheless, the Liberian people have the right to see justice done and have waited more than a decade since the TRC recommended that alleged perpetrators of the most serious crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars be fairly tried and held to account.

Now is not the time to delay the prospect of accountability with a new commission. Instead, we are urging the President and legislature to move forward in giving victims access to justice for atrocities committed by requesting assistance from the United Nations and Liberia’s other international partners to establish a war crimes court. By building off the TRC report’s proposed statute for a court that could try war crimes and other relevant initiatives, such as a draft court statute developed by the Liberian Bar Association, and by calling upon international expertise and assistance for support in conducting war crimes investigations and trials that are consistent with domestic law and international standards, justice for victims of civil wars-era crimes can finally be achieved in Liberia.

Respectfully submitted,

 

Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia

Independent Human Rights Investigators (Liberia)

Global Justice and Research Project (Liberia)

Secretariat for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia

Transitional Justice Working Group of Liberia

Liberia Massacre and Survivors Association

Human Rights Watch

Civitas Maxima

The Advocates for Human Rights

Center for Justice and Accountability

 

cc:

Deputy Speaker, House of Representatives

Honorable Members, House of Representatives

European Union Delegation to Liberia

Embassy of Ireland in Liberia

Embassy of Sweden in Liberia

German Embassy Liberia

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Liberia

U.S. Embassy in Liberia


[1] A proposal for establishment of the TJC is detailed in the Liberian Senate’s Advice to the President on the Implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (“TRC”) Recommendations, submitted to the plenary by 9 Liberian Senators on June 22, 2021 (“Position Paper”). The Position Paper recommends that the TJC’s responsibilities should include determining why recommendations of Liberia’s TRC have not been implemented, whether the TRC complied with its mandate, and the effect of the August 2003 general amnesty, in addition to other responsibilities. This letter precedes a fuller analysis our organizations are preparing on the Position Paper.

[2] The Position Paper argues that a recommendation of prosecutions is inconsistent with the object and purpose of the TRC because it “appears inconceivable that the negotiators and drafters of the TRC Act intended that retributive justice, not restorative justice, would be the way to proceed.” (Position Paper, p. 11.)

[3] A Questions and Answers document prepared by our organizations on the role of criminal accountability for grave crimes and analysis of the TRC’s proposed court is available at Q&A: Justice for Civil Wars-Era Crimes in Liberia | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org).

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