Backing War Crimes Court in Liberia is Standing Up for Democracy: Will the US Keep Its Promise?

The Biden Administration has remained quiet on an unequivocal, high-level message to Liberian President George Weah on the “Liberian issue of war crimes” during the recent US-Africa Summit that a war crimes court in Liberia is deeply important to bringing justice for civil wars-era crimes and should not be delayed any further.

Widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law characterized Liberia’s two brutal armed conflicts between 1989 and 2003. The only steps toward criminal accountability have been a small number of cases prosecuted abroad.

“The US government is uniquely placed to back Liberian victims in their quest for accountability for brutal atrocities committed during the civil wars as one of – if not the most important – international partners to Liberia,” said Adama Dempster of the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia.

Until recently, the United States government’s executive branch was silent on criminal accountability for civil wars-era crimes in Liberia, although the House of Representatives adopted a resolution in 2018 in support of criminal justice.

Previous calls by US officials for justice elsewhere in Africa and US assistance provided to accountability initiatives on the continent, such as in Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Central African Republic, highlight that the US government has tools at its disposal to foster justice for victims of atrocity crimes that should be utilized in Liberia, the groups said.

US Embassy personnel in Liberia have repeatedly told representatives of nongovernmental groups that it seemed unclear that the call for a war crimes court had wide support domestically because Liberians sometimes focused more on securing their basic needs. The groups said that this position undermines Liberians’ aspirations for justice and years of demands by various segments of Liberian society for prosecutions of serious crimes that continue to haunt the region.

Likewise, the US reaction perpetuates a false assumption that a focus on daily needs negates strong support for justice, the groups said. This can lead to perceptions that Liberians are being patronized and risks undermining trust in the US government by average Liberians, including in the diaspora.

During a visit to Liberia in October, the US war crimes ambassador, Beth Van Schaack, began to convey US interest in accountability for civil wars-era crimes in Liberia and the need for greater clarity on what has impeded progress, which the groups said was helpful.

At various times, President Weah has said that those responsible for civil wars-era crimes should face justice, but in recent years, he has gone silent or been dismissive about establishing a court. Prince Johnson, a former warlord implicated in civil wars-era crimes in Liberia, who is now a senator and is subject to US Treasury Department sanctions due to his alleged role in corruption in Liberia, has led much of the opposition to the creation of a court.

Notorious figures implicated in civil wars-era crimes who have lived in the US but have returned to Liberia face no imminent threat of being held accountable, the groups said. George Boley, a former warlord who was deported from the US due to his alleged role in recruiting child soldiers in Liberia, now serves in Liberia’s House of Representatives. Moses Thomas fled to Liberia while being sued in the US for his role in one of the single worst incidents during Liberia’s wars, the 1990 Lutheran Church massacre, during which more than 600 people were estimated killed. The court held him responsible and ordered him to pay survivors US$84 million in damages, which he has yet to do.

President Weah should request international and regional expertise to determine the best legal and structural requirements for a war crimes court that could operate fairly and effectively in Liberia, the groups said. Such efforts can build off existing proposals for a court, including one made by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009 that would be composed of international and Liberian judges, prosecutors and other staff and another made by Liberia’s National Bar Association.

“While some perpetrators have been prosecuted outside of Liberia, the government of Liberia is under international treaty obligation to prosecute those who committed gross human rights violations,” said Hassan Bility of the Global Justice and Research Project. “We call on the Liberian Government to speed up implementation of the recommendations of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that generations unborn will be able to say that our forefathers stood where duty required them to stand.”