Whereas other countries have considered justice to be an essential component of peace and reconciliation, Liberia has totally disregarded the punishment of those who perpetrated atrocities during its 14-year civil war.
By Lovetta Tugbeh
The Coalition for Justice in Liberia (CJL) believe that Liberia’s future lies in establishing a solid foundation for justice. As we look towards 2014 and the years to come, let us make the pursuit of justice an integral component of peace and reconciliation.
2013 saw many significant developments, but it will forever be remembered as the year the world lost one of its greatest icons, the revered ‘Madiba’ Nelson Mandela. His legacy on the arc of history will leave a lasting footprint for generations to come. There are three great lessons of Mandela’s legacy. First, that freedom is an inherent right of all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality or nationality. Second, that mankind can only learn, grow, develop and prosper in an environment of peace, harmony and democracy. Third, and most importantly, mankind has a responsibility to sustain peace by building a solid foundation of justice, as peace and justice are intertwined and one cannot exists in the absence of the other.
When he was elected the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, Mandela and his comrades in the African National Congress (ANC) demonstrated their commitment to peace and justice by establishing the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which provided the framework for those who had endured oppression under the brutal Apartheid regime for more than 300 years, to confront their oppressors. Where the commission had determined that there were egregious crimes and acts of injustice committed, it recommended that the laws be applied to its fullest. Those who were found to engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity experienced the full weight of the law.
Like South Africa, other countries who experienced civil wars in which their citizens were senselessly subjected to crimes that caused untold deaths and suffering took concrete steps to correct the injustices. Rwanda and Sierra Leone did so in 1994 and 2001 when their civil wars came to an end. In 2001, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was established to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Based on numerous reports from the United Nations and numerous human rights organizations, it is estimated that between 50,000 to 100,000 civilians lost their lives to various warring factions during the decade-long war. Some of the egregious crimes committed included entire families being gunned down in the street, children and adults having their limbs hacked-off, and girls and young women being taken to the rebel bases and sexually abused. The Special Court of Sierra Leone determined that there was serious violations of international humanitarian law, and sentenced those found guilty to face the full weight of the law, including death. Rwanda also followed a similar path. In Rwanda, it was estimated that nearly 500,000 to 1 million Rwandans, mostly civilians, were massacred during the genocide. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) established in 1994 relentlessly prosecuted those who violated international humanitarian law.
These various experiences of war crimes gave the international community pause to consider war crimes deserving of severe punishment, including life imprisonment or death. The investigations and prosecution of international crimes – including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes — is a fundamental component of justice which strengthens peace in a postwar society, and brings healing and the restoration of human dignity to victims and survivors. Whereas other countries have considered justice to be an essential component of peace and reconciliation, Liberia has totally disregarded the punishment of those who perpetrated atrocities during its 14-year civil war. In almost ten years since the cessation of war, there has been plenty of talk about peace – which is absolutely essential to sustaining any relative progress – but far less discussion about justice. Not a single credible step has been taken to address the issue of justice. The two commissions established — the Independent Human Rights Commission and the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, spearheaded by retired Judge Gladys Johnson and Ambassador George Manneh Weah, respectively – supposedly have nothing within their mandates that addresses the issue of justice.
Those opposed to justice have argued that the country is better-off by keeping the focus on peace and reconciliation, because they argue that pursuing justice will unearth “old wounds” and undermine whatever peace, stability and national security is currently enjoyed. Yet what kind of country is being built when it demonstrates no respect for the grievances of thousands of people — in Liberia’s case, nearly 250,000 victims and survivors. Are the lives of those innocently killed less important than those who perpetrated such heinous human rights violations? Should Liberia be satisfied that the perpetrators of its civil war escape punishment for murder, mutilation and rape under the false pretence of peace and reconciliation? To those who are urging forgiveness, are they saying that no one should be held accountable for the war crimes committed? Even in the Bible, God was clear about what should be done to those who murdered his children. For example, in His Covenant with Noah(Genesis ch.9,vs.5-6), it is stated that, “animals that kill people must die, and any person who murders must be killed. Yes, you must execute anyone who murders another person, for to kill a person is to kill a living being made in God’s image”. Seeking accountability and justice is, therefore, in no way the same as seeking revenge or witch-hunting, as others would want to have us believe. God himself was forthright about justice, and this is the only way we can deal a death blow to impunity and begin the process of building a new and vibrant Liberian society
Pursuing justice is not antithetical to peace and reconciliation, as those countries that have done so — South Africa, Rwanda and Sierra Leone – are at peace and continue to flourish economically. Unlike those who portend that we should accept the prevailing situation in Liberia for the sake of peace and reconciliation, we are not convinced that this path will sustain Liberia’s future. The Coalition for Justice in Liberia therefore urges that in 2014 the issue of justice should resonate with those who have conscience and respect for human dignity.
Lovetta Tugbeh is the interim executive director of the Coalition for Justice in Liberia.