What I learned From the New York Symposium on the TRC: The Substance & the Politics (Guest Commentary)

By: Michael Keating

Michael Keating

I was quite surprised to wake up Monday morning and read on the pages of Front Page Africa, a publication run by my friend Rodney Sieh
Source: The Liberian Journal
 I was quite surprised to wake up Monday morning and read on the pages of Front Page Africa, a publication run by my friend Rodney Sieh, that Jacob Massaquoi had called for the arrest of President Sirleaf as a terrorist. I have no doubt that Mr. Massaquou, head of the Africa Refuge Center of Staten Island, said those things but it should be pointed out that Mr. Massaquoi, although one of the supporters of the TRC conference through his organization, was not an official speaker at the conference nor an official panelist. Needless to say his views do not reflect those of the other conference organizers.

I was also quite surprised to hear that Mr. Massaquoi and several others had been to the U.S. State Department to call for the suspension of support for the 2011 elections and the installation of an interim government. Once again the organizers of the TRC conference were unaware of these political maneuverings and certainly do not endorse them. I personally think they are both ill-conceived and not at all in the true interests of the Liberian people.

The main purpose of the conference was to hear from the TRC Commissioners (Verdier, Washington, Stewart) and other interested Liberians and international supporters of Liberia, as to what should happen to the TRC recommendations.

All panelists were told to keep politics out of their presentations but few of the Liberians on the panel and many in the audience were unable to resist grinding their axe in such a public forum. Personally I had no problem with that, but because other panelists with more moderate views chose not to attend, the floor was left open to the critics of the current government. In any case, I think it was an eye-opener for the non-Liberians in the audience to hear Liberians criticizing President Sirleaf who generally gets only high praise in the American media.

The reason that moderate panelists dropped out — some at the last minute — was because they thought that only radicals would be in attendance despite seeing that there were several prominent international experts on Transitional Justice on the panels as well as the TRC commissioners. Not having the moderates in attendance, including some TRC related human rights organizations — who seemed to me to pull out when they found out that Jerome Verdier would be the main speaker — already made the conversation more one-sided. Nevertheless, the proceedings were lively and I believe largely on-target. It strains the imagination to understand how you could have a serious conversation on the TRC without the presence of the lead commissioner.

The bottom-line is that the TRC recommendations are sitting in space right now and need to be brought to earth. The government of Liberia should convene a panel of experts who will help sequence the recommendations and come up with a strategy for their implementation. The main thing to keep in mind is that it does not all have to be done at once and does not all have to be done right now. As long as people are alive they can be brought to trial. It took over a decade to prosecute General Pinochet of Chile. Time is on the side of the just.

Although certain individuals tried to hijack this conference for their own political interests (and some tried to avoid it for another type of political interest) it should not obscure the fact that the work of the TRC is not finished. In fact, it has barely begun. Although certain people and organizations showed some fear of engaging with people who might have disagreed with them, the time is ripe for bringing all participants in the TRC process together to try to iron out a strategy for moving forward.

Any attempts to criticize the conference because of the intemperate words of people who were not on the official agenda are ill-founded. The TRC conference at the New School was hopefully the beginning of a series of discussions on what should happen to the TRC, and how finally, the victims of the violence can finally get some redress, and most importantly, justice.

Editor’s Note: Michael Keating was one of the co-coordinators of the TRC conference that took place New York on Oct. 19-20. He is the Associate Director of the Center for Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He can be reached at michael.keating@umb.edu.


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