A War Crimes Tribunal for Liberia

By Ezekiel Pajibo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

January 14, 2004


Now that His Excellency Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant has indicated that acts carried out by militia persons in Monrovia are crimes against humanity and could therefore be brought before “a war crimes tribunal”, Liberians have found a new recruit in the campaign to create a War Crimes Tribunal for Liberia (WCTL). The Chairman’s statement was contained in a number of threats he levied against militia persons who had gone on a protest against the meagre incentive package the United Nations Mission In Liberia (UNMIL) provided to those who showed up to turn in their weapons on December 7, 2003. The threats by the Chairman clearly undermine a previous statement attributed to him shortly after he was named the new Liberian leader. Then, he had indicated that he did not think taking war crimes indictee and exiled dictator Charles Taylor to Freetown was a good idea.

The campaign to establish a WCTL is picking up steam and is being led by a somewhat loose coalition. It needs to gel and begin the practical task of amassing and documenting, in a systematic manner, testimonies and evidence against alleged perpetrators. But there are initial issues to overcome. First is the view that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission –called for in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is what the country needs at this time and not a War Crimes Tribunal. Chairman Bryant, who now thinks differently and a Liberian lawyer, Charles Brumskine, have espoused this view. Another view, which so far is mainly church-based has declared its support for a War Crimes Tribunal to try Liberians who perpetrated crimes against humanity during the Liberian war years (1989-20003 or beyond).

There is a confused middle straddle advocating for an end to impunity in Liberia but are either unable or unwilling to say exactly how that can come about in the near term. They are not necessarily sure how to deal with the question of how to end impunity but are honestly grappling with the issues. This group can easily be part of a well-organized and generously endowed campaign to set up a WCTL. The establishment of a tribunal is an important first step in any efforts to stamp out the culture of impunity so pervasive in Liberia. As well, it is a fundamental requirement in the re-building of a free, democratic and just Liberia. A TRC and a WCTL are all good for the country and should be pursued. One, the TRC is government business and the other; the WCTL is the people’s business. Thankfully Chairman Bryant is on board and we can move forward on this important project.

The current international climate is conducive for this kind of campaign. Iraq has or is in the process to set up a war crimes court to try Saddam Hussein. Our exiled and indicted countryman, Charles Taylor, will appear in Freetown in due course. If he can be tried for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone, certainly he can be charged for war crimes he committed in Liberia. There is a war crimes tribunal for Rwanda, where those who committed genocide in that country in 1994 are being tried. There are many Liberians who are alleged to have perpetrated similar war crimes including extra-judicial executions, massacre of civilians and widespread raping of women. These charges should be thoroughly investigated, testimonies should be taken and notarised, evidence including mass graves should be compiled and documented. With the evidence in hand, the international community, especially international human rights organizations and other solidarity groups will be galvanized to support Liberians in this effort.

This is not an easy task. It is risky business to bring to book violent men and perhaps a few women. There could be death threats against witnesses, human rights workers and activists. Evidence could be concealed if not destroyed. Given the current security climate in Liberia, where the fate of the judiciary system continues to hang in abeyance, it is quite easy to carry out threats and go scoot- free – this is what impunity does. Therefore a campaign to create the WCTL has to be well organized, discrete but professional in marshalling the evidence, and must have sufficient resources to carry out its work including providing protection such as safe houses for witnesses, activists and human rights workers.

The level of criminality perpetrated during the war years must be redressed. There are a good number of Liberians who like to say, “Let bygones be bygones”. Yet very recent incidents in Liberia compelled us to say and do otherwise. The brutal murder of a 28-year-old woman, Patricia Toe, by her husband who is a law enforcement officer and a holdover from the Taylor war machine is a painful reminder. The report out of Bong County where women were raped, murders committed and a Pastor was ordered to open his mouth while lying on the ground and armed men took turns to urinated into the Pastor’s mouth is too recent in our memories to not care. The story of a woman who was ordered to lick the rear ends of at least five armed men after they had taken their shit is the height of depravation for the perpetrators and certainly the lowest form of degradation for the victim. We saw the story of how a former Government of Liberia (GOL) fighter was captured by armed men in Tubmanburg by Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) forces had his heart ripped out of his rib cage and the Commander told the reporter that he would eat the pulsating heart because it will make him “strong”. All of these and more gruesome acts happened in the last few years. Another chilling tale making the rounds that must be investigated is the story of a group of mostly disabled combatants who used to frequent the Congo Town area near the “White House”, Taylor’s residence, but have since gone missing. It is alleged that they may have been murdered and buried in a mass grave.

Over the years particular stories have haunted decent Liberians. These include the Lutheran Church massacre, the Carter Camp massacre, the Duport Road Massacre, the Sinje Massacre, the missing trucks of children, mostly from Nimba County, who were alleged to have been slaughtered and dumped into wells. There is also the murder of Johnny Nah and his family, as well as the murder of Sam Dokie, his wife; driver, niece and I believe his bodyguard. These incidents are not necessarily the most gruesome neither are those involved more important than the estimated 300,000 dead and the million refugees and displaced during the war years, but these are incidents that have been amply documented. There were witnesses who are still alive and in many cases prepared to come forward to tell their stories. The documentation of these events and others are not only for the purpose of providing evidence before a war crimes tribunal – which is extremely important and necessary but it is the material that will inform the history of the war years. It is easy to say “let bygones be bygones,” if you are not a Dokie or a Nah. Our country has had a recent painful past - that must be confronted head-on before we can truly rebuild the country. It is only by accepting responsibilities for the choices we make in life and being accountable for our actions, can we truly put the past behind us. This is peace with justice.

Ezekiel Pajibo is a freelance political commentator in Monrovia.