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Liberia’s war,  economic crimes court, and matters arising.

It has been more than two decades since the climax of Liberia’s 14 years of civil war, which saw thousands killed and millions of property destroyed. The country has since enjoyed peace but still craving unity, and reconciliation. 

In 2005, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up to investigate gross human rights violations during the civil crisis, and report findings and recommendations.

Amongst other things, the TRC report recommended the establishment of an Extraordinary Criminal Court, which would be a hybrid court composed of national and international judges, prosecutors, and other staff, for the prosecution of former leaders of warring factions and others. 

Former Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and George Weah did little to heed the recommendations from the report to put to rest the mounting outcry for justice from the public, especially from victims of the war.  

Many believe the quest to prosecute perpetrators of the civil unrest in Liberia has lingered on for too long and is breeding a culture of impunity in the country.

But following the second peaceful transition of power in post-war Liberia, the new government of President Joseph Boakai has raised the hopes of Liberians by taking steps towards the undertaking of a tribunal for war, and economic crimes.

In his inauguration speech, under the section that speaks to “Our Path to Progress,” President Boakai pledged his commitment to reset the fight against corruption and impunity, saying, “We have decided to set up an office to explore the feasibility for the establishment of War and Economic Crimes Court (WECC) to provide an opportunity for those who bear the most significant responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity to account for their actions in court.

An estimated quarter of a million of our people perished in the war. Without closure, we cannot forever remain unmoved by this searing national tragedy.”

On March 3, 2024, the 55th House of Representatives signed a resolution to establish a war crimes court in Liberia.

A few days after the lower house’s decision, the U.S. government, through its Ambassador-At-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Beth Van Schaack, congratulated the house for passing the resolution and stressed the U.S. “Support for accountability and justice for all Liberians.”

Liberians, in their majority, have taken the discussion to every street corner and prayed to the national government to bring those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice.

However, there has been resistance and multidimensional statements from ex-rebels, legal practitioners, and political actors against the court’s establishment.

Prince Johnson is a former rebel leader, and currently a Senator of Nimba County. He is one of the ex-fighters vocal against establishing a war crimes court in Liberia. 

Speaking recently on a local radio station, the Nimba County lawmaker said the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the peace agreement signed in Liberia’s second civil war, grants amnesty to all those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Liberian civil war. 

Senator Johnson, who hugely supported the reelection of Joseph Boakai as president, expressed fear over the establishment of the court, saying, “It worries me because it will disrupt our peace.”

Calling the TRC report a bogus document, he emphasized that President Boakai wants to bring the court to target him. 

“There are other generals, commanders, colonels, majors, and officers who protected, and worked with their commanders currently holding consultative meetings. I can tell you for a fact, those guys will not sit for you to go after them,” he added.

A Liberian criminal lawyer, Arthur Johnson, explained that it is going to be difficult for President Boakai to establish a war and economic crimes court in Liberia based on: Articles 8 and 24  of the CPA,  an Act entitled, “An Act to Grant Immunity from both Civil and Criminal Proceedings against all Persons within the Jurisdiction of the Republic of Liberia, from Acts, or Crimes Committed During the Civil War, December 1989 to August 2003,” and Chapter 13, Article 97 of the Constitution of Liberia.

“If I were a political advisor to Senator Johnson, I would tell him never to comment on the issue of war crimes court because of the passing of the amnesty laws,” Cllr. Johnson said.

Simeon Freeman is the standard bearer of the Movement for Progressive Change (MPC), and a former presidential candidate in the elections held in 2023 in Liberia. 

He also stated his position as the debate for the court’s establishment intensified. 

“I am not against the establishment of a war, and economic crimes court’s establishment. I am saying, you just came to power. Deal with the bread, and butter issues first, then you can talk about your war crimes court issue.”

With Liberia being a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, and other treaties and protocols that are against war crimes and crimes against humanity, will the nation tread like Sierra Leone in establishing an extraordinary court to prosecute perpetrators of heinous war crimes? The world watches to see. 

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