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LIBERIA: Post-War Justice Stirs Division
8/8/2006 10:06 AM

The impending trial of former rebel leader and ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone has divided his countrymen on how best to pursue justice after 14 years of brutal civil war.

The March arrest of the charismatic strongman, who still has many supporters in Liberia, was internationally hailed as a major step towards ending the culture of impunity in Africa.

"Taylor's trial should send a strong message around the continent and around the world that warlords in other parts of Africa cannot assume they will get away with their crimes and that impunity will not be allowed to stand," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on a recent visit to Sierra Leone.

But in Liberia, many feel that the search for justice has only just begun with the launch of a new Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in June. The commission, opened by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is to investigate 24 years of instability and seek out the root causes of the civil conflict.

The nine-member commission has begun seeking information on gross human rights abuses ranging from murder to sexual violence on the basis of voluntary statements.

Like the TRC in neighbouring Sierra Leone, which wrapped up hearings from that country's decade-long civil war in 2004, Liberia's TRC cannot submit actions for prosecution.

However unlike its Sierra Leonean counter part, the Liberian commission can summon people to testify.

Fighting in Liberia left hundreds of thousands dead and forced 300,000 more men, women and children to run for their lives, sheltering in refugee camps across West Africa. Many have yet to return home nearly three years after Taylor stepped down as president under international pressure led by the US.

Liberia now has its first elected government since the war ended. Sirleaf, Liberia and Africa's first elected woman president, recently told IRIN that Liberia's TRC is not just about justice but reconciling the war-battered country.

Breaking the silence

To encourage Liberians to come forward and tell their stories, a sign at the creaking metal entrance gate to the commission's temporary offices explains: 'The TRC is not a court, and cannot send you to jail'.

Inside, Chairman Jerome Verdier said the commission would seek access to Taylor if considered necessary to the fulfilment of its duties, but he warned it was "myopic" to reduce all of Liberia's problems to one man.

"We Liberians understand that the conflict didn't start with Charles Taylor," Verdier told IRIN. "It has deep historical roots and in finding a durable solution we have to review the past and we have to have all the Liberians on board."

"What is essential now is a process that gives Liberians the opportunity to search their hearts, revisit the past and correct those historical wrongs that have impacted the current situation as a way for laying the building blocks for the future," he said.

The commission was created under a peace deal signed in August 2003 by Liberian warring parties and civilians. Delegates initially rejected establishment of a Sierra Leone-style war crimes tribunal, under whose jurisdiction Taylor now must stand trial.

Opening old wounds?

At the end of two years, the TRC is expected to make recommendations for reparations to victims and proposals on how to proceed with the justice process. A further tribunal based on the TRC findings has not been ruled out.

But some believe the 24-month mandate of the TRC is too short to achieve its goals, even if the government exercises its right to extend the TRC mandate by three months. They warn that airing Liberia's past atrocities without redress will only open old wounds.

"Will the true victims come forward, and will what they reveal lead to justice or to more bitterness, feelings of betrayal and unfulfilment?" an editorialist of the daily Analyst newspaper wondered at the official launching of the TRC last month.

Others say there is no use in documenting human rights violations in the past as long as the abusers remain at large. They say that perpetrators could easily seek revenge on those who tell their stories to the TRC.

"Why should I go tell who killed my brother 10 years ago?" a Liberian citizen who declined to be named told IRIN. "Why should I risk having my door kicked in at night by his cronies?"

Many Liberians are now backing a campaign led by a group named Forum for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia, which has filed a petition that will be discussed at the Liberian Upper House this month. The Forum says Liberia should have its own war crimes tribunal working alongside the truth commission, much like in Sierra Leone.

"Paradoxically, there were fewer people killed in Sierra Leone than in Liberia, but Sierra Leone has a war crimes court and we do not. So we think the international community has a responsibility to establish a war crimes court here," said Forum representative Mulbah K. Morlu as he sat in a noisy, overcrowded backyard where the group regularly meets to plan its campaign.

Others need to be tried

The trial against Charles Taylor will not resolve Liberia's problems until other war criminals who have retained influential positions in the country are also brought to justice, Morlu said.

Several notorious militia leaders, including Adolphus Dolo, also known as General Peanut Butter, and Prince Johnson, who has been accused of rape and murder, were elected to seats in parliament in elections last year.

"Taylor was not just taken to court because of what he did in the past, but because of his potential to wage war in the future," Morlu said. "We need to cleanse this society of extremists: people who we believe still possess the military potential to foment war in this country."

"You can't put the past behind you if individuals who committed mayhem are riding around in luxurious cars and are trying to evade justice by finding security behind the corridors of power. Until these people are brought to court, there is no assurance that we won't go back to war."

The Forum is not alone in calling for a broader justice for Liberia. Ironically, many of Taylor's ex-combatants say it is unfair their leader is awaiting trial while those who took up guns to topple him remain free.

"Taylor is arrested, but why are the rebel leaders who destroyed the country not arrested?" said a Taylor supporter known as Gola Ray, who said he was concerned about his safety. "They should go to court too."

Some international human rights activists agree. The former prosecutor of the Special Court in Sierra Leone, David Crane, recently called for the establishment of a regional 'hybrid war crimes tribunal', saying the international community should consider extending the mandate of the Sierra Leone court to cover Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire, divided since rebels seized the north nearly four years ago.

Referring to the victims of the Liberian civil war, Crane said: "We cannot walk away from 600,000 human beings. The ultimate atrocity in my mind is that we don't do something and that these people go quietly into the night and that there is no record of their horrible deaths."

Sirleaf cautious

But others insist that Liberia's peace is still too fragile to begin hauling prominent criminals to court. They say a war crimes tribunal would fuel political tension and put the new government under undue pressure.

President Sirleaf says there is time yet. Justice is "a two-step thing", she told IRIN and a tribunal could be discussed after the TRC completed its two-year mandate.

"Our first step is to find the means to rehabilitate those who were conscripted into war," Johnson-Sirleaf said, referring to the thousands of child soldiers who were forced to fight. "Then we can talk about who should face a court."

"It's not a question of undermining justice. We are trying to find a balance between justice on the one hand, and reconciliation on the other."

Published in: Liberia: Post-War Justice Stirs Division, IRINNews, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, August 4, 2006. © IRIN.