Demanding Justice: War Crimes Tribunal and the task of rebuilding Liberia

By Edward Neufville

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 28, 2003


The decade of the 90's saw a rise in civil conflicts around the world, such as the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda, just to name a few. When these conflicts came to an end, either with the help of the international community or with the eventual defeat of an opposing force, the perpetrators of mass violence and gross human rights abuses during those civil conflicts were brought to trial. Thanks in part to the United Nations through the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia and the Special Court of Sierra Leone.

The idea of bringing perpetrators of mass violence and human rights abuses to face the consequences of their acts is not a new phenomenon. After World War II, members of Germany's Nazi regime were prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials and others were later prosecuted by the State of Israel for their participation in the extermination of Jews.

However, all of the aforementioned cases, Germany, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia share something in common. The victors of the civil conflict eventually prosecuted the alleged perpetrators of mass violence and human rights abuses, which were the losers of the conflict.

The situation in Liberia presents a much more complex situation in that all of the warring factions in Liberia are signatories to the new peace agreement and are members of the transitional interim government. All of the Liberian warring factions are still armed and continue to maintain control of many parts of Liberia. Furthermore, the West African peacekeeping force and the international community, at least for the moment, are not willing to assume the role of peace enforcer to disarm and subsequently arrest and help to prosecute alleged perpetrators of mass violence and war crimes committed against the citizens and inhabitants of Liberia.

At this moment, the call for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal in Liberia is not only premature but also selfish considering that the cease-fire in Liberia remains very fragile and the resumption of fighting will cause more suffering to the remaining inhabitants of Liberia. The call for a war crimes tribunal is premature considering the peacekeeping force present in Liberia at the moment still needs adequate international and regional support in the form of personnel and financial assistance in order to maintain the fragile peace in Liberia and begin to protect the civilian population.

At this moment, more attention must paid to the disarmament and rehabilitation of ex-combatants of Liberia's civil wars and the affected population than to the creation of a war crimes tribunal in Liberia. The fact of the matter is that the ex-combatants of Liberia's civil conflicts will play a crucial role in the stability of Liberia and the West African sub-region. If they are not disarmed and properly rehabilitated, these seasoned and battle-groomed soldiers will serve as conduits for terrorist organizations seeking to wreak havoc in Liberia and across the continent of Africa.

The Liberian interim government must operate in the best interests of Liberia and should not be so quick to replicate legal institutions such as the Special Court of Sierra Leone or an International Criminal Tribunal. Rather, Liberians should create their own institutions to address the atrocities committed during the civil wars and should create their own remedies by determining what is in the best interest of the country in accordance with international and domestic legal norms. It is important to hold the perpetrators of mass violence and war crimes accountable for the crimes committed. However, there are times when alternatives to the law should be seriously considered so as to create an environment conducive to the rebuilding and rehabilitation of society. The law is not the remedy to every problem.