EDITORIAL: Quest For War & Economic Crimes Court: Be Sincere To End Impunity

Unity Party (UP), the immediate past ruling party of Liberia, has joined the bandwagon of groups and individuals in support of the establishment of the War and Economic Crimes Court in Liberia as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee TRC), in the interest of justice.

In a press release of June 23, 2021, signed by Cornel Kruah-Togba, National Assistant Secretary General for Press, Publicity and Outreach, UP believes that the establishment of this court will discourage the culture of impunity that currently exists in Liberia.

The party further strongly calls on its lawmakers (Senators and Representatives) to support and advocate for the establishment of the War and Economic Crimes Court.

The UP adds that it will seriously frown on any action(s) taken by any of its lawmakers to stall, thwart or contradict the party’s official position on the establishment of the court in Liberia.

It says all UP lawmakers are encouraged to act in accordance with the decision of the party.

The position of the UP comes on the heels of current momentum that is increasing for a War Crimes & Economic Crimes Court for Liberia to help redress the wounds of the country’s civil war.

Many may question the sincerity of the former ruling party in that during the UP’s 12 years at the helm of the country, its Standard Bearer and then President of Liberia, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was banned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from holding public office for 30 years because of what it said was her role in a civil war.

In its final report, the TRC panel investigating Liberia’s civil wars included Madam Sirleaf’s name on a list of people it accused of being “the financiers and political leaders” of the warring factions.

In a hearing before the commission, Madam Sirleaf denied having been a member of the rebel movement led by former President Charles Taylor, but said she had met him several times during the war and had collected funds for him while he was preparing to oust President Samuel Kanyon Doe in the 1980s.

While the country keeps dragging feet on this saga, it recently took the wisdom of the Swiss Federal Criminal Court to render a guilty verdict and 20-year prison sentence for Alieu Kosiah, a former Liberian rebel commander, after a four-week trial held in December 2020 and February 2021, following years of investigation which started in 2014.

The former Liberian battalion commander of United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) rebel faction during the First Liberian Civil War was found guilty on June 18, 2021 in relation to all but four counts.

Kosiah was sentenced to 20 years in prison, from which his over six years of pre-trial detention will be deducted, and was ordered to pay over 50,000 CHF to the seven plaintiffs who testified against him.

The crimes for which Kosiah is convicted include: ordering the killing of 13 civilians and 2 unarmed soldiers; murdering four civilians; raping a civilian; ordering the cruel treatment of seven civilians; infringing upon the dignity of a deceased civilian; repeatedly ordering the cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment of several civilians; repeatedly inflicting cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment on several civilians; repeated orders to loot, and using a child soldier in armed hostilities.

The crimes for which Kosiah is acquitted include: recruiting a child soldier; attempted murder of a civilian; complicity in a civilian murder; and giving orders to loot in one instance.

Notably, Kosiah was found guilty of rape, which is the first time that an individual has been directly convicted for sexual violence committed during the Liberian civil wars.

Given how widespread sexual and gender-based violence was during Liberia’s two civil wars, it’s without doubt that such judicial recognition is long overdue, and is a significant achievement for the victims who testified bravely against Kosiah, both during the investigative stage and at trial, as well as the countless other victims of conflict-related sexual violence in Liberia and across the world.

This historic trial should set precedents for both Switzerland and Liberia as the first universal jurisdiction and war crimes case in Switzerland before the Federal Criminal Court, and the first ever trial of a Liberian national for war crimes committed during the two Liberian civil conflicts that ravaged the country for 14 years.

In February 2021, while Switzerland was in a peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, six of the seven brave plaintiffs testifying against Kosiah travelled from their homes in rural Liberia to the small town of Bellinzona in Switzerland’s Southern Canton of Ticino. The seventh plaintiff was able to travel as far as Monrovia, Liberia, to testify via video link.

“I did it out of love for my country and for the love of my brother that I lost during the war,” declared one of the plaintiffs who testified in Court in February and whose brother was brutally murdered by Kosiah along with six other civilians.

“The only thing that I have to say to Liberians is that we should leave this culture of silence, where we are afraid of voicing out. If we continue to fear to voice out against what these people have done, then they will not know that what they have done is wrong. They will continue to do it. Testifying will serve as a message to those who may want to follow these steps.

“Even after 20 years, a person is brought to justice to face the consequences of his actions. If you set an example, the other guys will be afraid. The message I want to send today is that let us have the courage – I know it is very hard to do – to go for justice. Voices can be heard, the wounds can be healed by justice. Let us forget about somebody chasing us, let’s go to justice.”

War crimes advocacy groups Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) paid tributes to the incredible resilience and courage of the Liberian plaintiffs in this case who overcame so many obstacles to testify. In spite of intimidation and threats, they did not back down. They pursued accountability, and achieved justice.

These plaintiffs have indeed contributed in a spectacular way to the worldwide quest for justice for the many forgotten Liberian victims of the wars, who have been let down both by the international community and their own government.

The use of extra-territorial jurisdiction has enabled investigations, prosecutions, and trials all over the world. In addition to Kosiah’s trial in Switzerland, two trials were held in 2017 and 2018 in the United States; the trial of a former Sierra Leonean rebel commander is currently ongoing in Finland; and another former Liberian rebel commander is listed for trial in France in October 2022.

“The bravery of all these Liberian victims is exemplary” said Hassan Bility, Director of the GJRP in Monrovia. “It is time now for the Liberian Government to hear this quest of justice, and finally comply with the recommendations of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2009, and ensure we put an end to impunity for war crimes in Liberia.”

Civitas Maxima and the GJRP have also commended the Judges of the Swiss Federal Criminal Court who conducted the trial in a resolute and impartial manner, and the Swiss Federal prosecutors who brought this case all the way to trial.

In spite of efforts being made abroad to drag alleged perpetrators for trial, views are mixed back home in Liberia about the war crimes court’s creation despite the recommendations of the TRC and continuous pressure from grassroots and international groups.

President George Manneh Weah has equivocated with regard to the court’s creation, backsliding from earlier support during his campaign for President.

Sadly, for the past few decades, Liberians have suffered untold human rights violations while perpetrators acted with near-complete impunity during the country’s multiple civil wars. Between 1989 and 2003, 250,000 Liberians died from the fighting, and thousands more were conscripted as child soldiers, raped, suffered loss of limb, and other traumatic experiences. Since that time, not a single war crimes trial has occurred in Liberia as part of the country’s judicial process.

Consider the case of South Sudan today, where a fragile, barely legitimate government has received U.S. government support and massive amounts of financial aid and still can’t decide whether they feel comfortable proceeding with a so-called hybrid court they agreed to in a 2018 peace deal. This court, which would be the first such body to be operated in conjunction with the African Union, would be charged with investigating and prosecuting those involved in grave offenses during the 2013-20 civil war. The crimes in question are unlikely to ever see the light of day, given that members on both sides were directly involved in both the war and the mechanism intended to offer justice to its victims.

Perhaps the clearest examples of the politicization of war crime tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions are underway in Liberia, where renewed calls for accountability after the civil war that devastated the country from 1989 to 2003 have unearthed uncomfortable questions for Liberia’s political elite.

Prince Johnson, a former rebel leader who killed former President Samuel Doe, now Senator of Nimba County and frequent kingmaker in Liberian presidential elections, is the most famous of the proposed tribunal’s potential targets. But Senator Johnson is far from being the only combatant who managed to find a second act in politics. Many of the supporters of war crime tribunals would be likely to find themselves on the indictment list.

Ultimately, war crime tribunals are most popular among two groups: the high-minded global elites issuing indictments from abroad, and the warlords who, having jumped from the battlefield to the boardroom and then the legislative chambers, understanding that war crimes are politically damaging to their opponents but so ineffective that they are unlikely to ever backfire. And then there are many Liberian politicians, who jump from one bandwagon to the next, hoping they will never reach a real court of international law. This must come to an end but the quest should be done with sincerity in order to end impunity.

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