Liberia: Justice for Country – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s – Recommendation for an Internationalized Domestic War Crimes Court


Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

On December 1, 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued  its final report detailing its findings on the causes and impact of that country’s social turmoil between 1979 and 2003. The TRC’s report represents a major undertaking on the part of the commission to expose the abuses committed against civilians during Liberia’s two devastating armed conflicts, which lasted from 1989 to 1996 and 1999 to 2003.

One of the key recommendations included in the final report is the establishment of an internationalized domestic criminal court to ensure justice for the worst crimes committed. Human Rights Watch fully supports the use of a hybrid international-national accountability mechanism to hold perpetrators of past crimes in Liberia to account. Prosecutions for serious crimes in violation of international law-including war crimes and crimes against humanity-are crucial to ensuring redress for the countless victims of Liberia’s brutal armed conflicts.
Liberian citizens were subjected to horrific abuses, including summary execution and numerous large-scale massacres, widespread and systematic rape and other forms of sexual violence, mutilation and torture, and large-scale forced conscription and use of child combatants. The violence blighted the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, displaced almost half the population, and virtually destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Prosecutions are vital to building respect for the rule of law, especially in a society like Liberia that has been devastated by conflict, thus making justice an important component to establishing sustainable peace.

Human Rights Watch believes it is essential for the Liberian government and the international community to take prompt steps to ensure that prosecutions for serious past crimes committed in Liberia are conducted, and that such proceedings are carried out in accordance with international standards. Toward that end, this memorandum analyzes the strengths and shortcomings of the TRC’s proposal for an Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia (ECCL) and makes recommendations aimed at ensuring the fairness, effectiveness, and legitimacy of any criminal proceedings. Consistent with this memorandum’s focus on the ECCL proposal, it does not cover wider strengths and weaknesses of the TRC’s analysis, conclusions, and recommendations that are unrelated to that proposal.

In summary, we believe that the TRC’s proposal has many elements that can contribute to fair and effective trials. These include: international and Liberian judges working together to try cases with a majority of internationally-appointed judges serving on each judicial panel; a combination of international and Liberian staff working in the prosecutor’s office; a commitment to witness protection; and plans to conduct outreach to local communities about trials. At the same time, the proposal has a number of significant weaknesses. These include: the recommendation that certain individuals who cooperated with the TRC not be prosecuted; failure to focus on those perpetrators most responsible for serious crimes; no requirement that the judges’ bench will have sufficient criminal trial experience; the prosecutor is not appointed by international actors; international crimes and modes of individual criminal liability are not fully defined; a number of crucial fair
trial protections are not explicitly provided for; individuals may be excluded from working at the ECCL on the basis of a public perception of involvement in abuses or supporting the conflict; and the death penalty is available as a punishment for some crimes. These weaknesses must be addressed if Liberia’s efforts to address serious past crimes are to be fair, effective, and consistent with international standards.

Other links: Human Rights Watch

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