U.S. President Biden Urged to Support the Establishment of War and Economic Crimes Court for Liberia
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have promised to put diplomacy and human rights first. There is no better place to do so than in Liberia.
In 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia recommended that Liberia establish a tribunal to prosecute war criminals. Former footballer and current President George Weah, elected in 2018, seems to have little interest in establishing a court or tribunal despite claiming otherwise to the international community at the United Nations General Assembly.
President Weah’s suggestion that he will reach out to the senate to establish the court is seen as grandstanding as the senate has no jurisdiction over the establishment of the War and Economic Crimes Court (WECC).
Liberia’s role in the civil war in Sierra Leone, from 1991-2002, led to more than 50,000 civilians being killed. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone, with support from the special forces of former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), intervened in Sierra Leone in an attempt to overthrow the government, led at the time by President Joseph Momoh.
Many in the American media have reported that the conflict was centered around blood diamonds and how the rebels used this illegal trade to finance the war. What is less known is the RUF’s brutal crimes of raping, mutilating, and murdering civilians as well as forcing young girls, predominantly children, to marry its soldiers.
Undisputed evidence indicates that a RUF captured village would leave villagers with amputated limbs. Commanders were known to ask victims if they wanted a long-sleeve or a short-sleeve, cutting off a hand if they reluctantly answered with a long-sleeve and the entire forearm if they said short-sleeve.
Liberia’s government finally stopped facilitating the RUF movement, as well as the blood diamond trade, ending the war in 2002. The United Nations (UN) Mission in Sierra Leone operated in the country from 1999 until 2005 with further economic and peace-building missions thereafter in an effort to bring justice to the perpetrators of war crimes.
The UN, in collaboration with the government of Sierra Leone, formed a Special Court whose operations were financially supported by forty countries and opened in early 2002, in the capital city Freetown.
This was the world’s first international tribunal to reside in the country where the crimes took place. The court’s mandate required any sentences passed to be executed in the nation itself, except where capacity and security dictated exceptions.
Over the course of eleven years, the court indicted dozens of suspects including the former Liberian President Taylor. The United States Department of State, complicit to some degree by sweeping Taylor’s contributions under the rug, could not stop the court from convicting him despite being a sitting President at the time, hit with fifty years in prison.
Other African countries, too, have recognized the importance of accountability for crimes. South Africa, Morocco, and in particular Rwanda has seen reforms in their legislation with one million foot soldiers of genocide in Rwanda tried in court.
Liberia however has so far refused to bring to justice killers of 250,000 people in the two civil wars of Liberia starting with Samuel Doe’s violent coup d’état in 1980 and continuing with the invasion of the country a decade later by Taylor’s National
Patriotic Front of Liberia battled rival warlord Prince Johnson for control of the capital Monrovia. Johnson won that battle and, on video, executed Doe. Yet the fighting continued until 1995 when Liberians elected President Taylor yet hopes for peace in Liberia were quickly extinguished with the President using blood diamonds to finance rebels in neighboring countries. Before the former President could be arrested, he fled the country.
President Weah and his allies—sitting senator Prince Johnson and the hand-picked mayor of Monrovia, Jefferson Koijee—are all reported to have been complicit in economic crimes.
“The WECC is foundational to restoring rule-of-law in Liberia and ending the era of impunity; it presents the opportunity to bring closure for the hurt and pain of the past and begin a new era of reconciliation and unity, [and] put behind all of our past divisions,” said Alex Cummings, a leading candidate in the opposition coalition that is contesting the 2023 elections.
Yet President Weah and his allies—sitting senator Prince Johnson and the hand-picked mayor of Monrovia, Jefferson Koijee—are reluctant to establish the WECC with reports of their complicity in economic crimes a key driver of delays and denials.
The role of the United States and the office of the U.S. President still holds a lot of weight and commentators and analysts are baffled as to the silence of President Biden on this matter. As Sierra Leone and a handful of African countries have shown, countries emerge better and more prosperous when they hold war criminals accountable.
Many are calling for President Biden and the U.S. State Department to put pressure on Liberia and get the government of the country to abide by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia’s recommendations and demand the establishment of an independent War and Economic Crimes Court based on the model of what worked in Sierra Leone.