David M. Crane, Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, discusses the dire need for establishing a legal framework in Liberia to deal with the legal international criminal mechanisms...
After the age of accountability in the 1990’s and early 21st century, there are certain lessons that have been learned since then. One of those lessons is that the beast of impunity must be faced down…always. International courts seeking justice for atrocity crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone were beacons of light in very dark corners of the world during that time. The rule of law was shown to be more powerful than the rule of the gun. Those regions are at peace since justice was done.
Today, as the world deals with populism, nationalism, and a retreat from international justice, various efforts continue to maintain a focus on atrocity accountability for Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen, and Syria, such as grass-root efforts by NGO’s and local civil society, as well as various international mechanisms. Now during this age of the strongman, political interest and will have waned regarding the creation of international courts to account for the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of human rights that are being committed today. The bright red thread of international accountability in politics. Without a political will for that effort, it just won’t happen. That is the current state of affairs.
The International Criminal Court, mankind’s effort to permanently face down the beast of impunity continues to struggle after two decades. Its future influence uncertain after years of bad management, confusing policy, and political missteps. Though it is a noble effort, respect for the ICC has faltered and also waned. It is unfortunate and is a subtle threat to future international efforts for atrocity accountability. This has been a counterweight to efforts for further international accountability to include any efforts for Liberia.
Accountability for the various international and domestic crimes committed in Liberia in the 1990s by the regime of Charles Taylor continues to flounder and drift. Various half measures, including a truth commission, have called for a justice mechanism for Liberia, yet there is no real international interest. The horrific crimes committed for a decade by Taylor and his henchmen need to be accounted for in some form or another.
One hears the argument by diplomats that the successful efforts of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa, called the Special Court for Sierra Leone, to hold accountable various actors that caused and sustained the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, to include the takedown of then-President Charles Taylor, is enough accountability for West Africa, there is no need for something in Liberia. Though there has been accountability for the victims of atrocity crimes in Sierra Leone, to be sure, there is no justice for the victims of international crimes that took place in Liberia during these times. Tens of thousands of victims roam the streets of Monrovia or the bush languishing in grief, despair, and despondency. There is no hope in sight for them.
Liberia will never be stable without justice. One of the lessons learned during the age of accountability is that victims want their voices heard on behalf of their families, villages, towns, and districts. Forgive and forget is not a solution…ever. No one has been forgiven or forgotten for what took place in Liberia in the 1990s by the people of Liberia, nor should it. Without a justice mechanism for Liberia, be it domestic, regional, or international there will be no peace not in that war-torn country nor for the region in general. All of the successes of the Special Court for Sierra Leone could be negated as well if there are no efforts to account for the many horrors committed across the border in Liberia.
Sierra Leone has received that justice and is generally as peace. Accountability is a healing salve for their wounds that remain open in Liberia. The people of Sierra Leone, though challenged by social and economic issues, at least have been shown that no one is above the law. They even saw a sitting President of Liberia, the most powerful warlord in all of Africa, brought down and held accountable for aiding and abetting crimes perpetrated in their country—Sierra Leone. Citizens of Liberia saw this happen and wait for the same justice. So far it is not going to happen.
The world has stepped away from international accountability, and coupled with the challenges of a worldwide pandemic, foregoing any hope of a justice mechanism being created for Liberia. For the time being that is a reality, but regional and international efforts should still be considered. Under the weak and strained leadership of the current President of Liberia, and the smoke and mirrors of his predecessor in avoiding the issue, there will be no domestic justice mechanism despite the desire of Liberians for just such a mechanism. Only the region under ECOWAS or the African Union, as well as or in the alternative, the international community can do something for the victims of the Liberian atrocities.
The international community has the experience of prosecuting international crimes, it’s a “deep bench” so to speak. Many veterans of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and others are available to assist in the creation of a regional or international court for neighboring Liberia. The international community also has the jurisprudence and the rules of evidence to try any cases stemming from the crimes committed in Liberia in the 1990s. We only need that all-important political will to do so.
So overlaying the reality of the circumstances of a world sickened by a pandemic in an age of the strongman, what can concerned nations do to sustain a semblance of political will to someday create a justice mechanism for Liberia?
First, concerned states in the region should meet to develop a framework for justice for Liberia at the appropriate time. There is a legal basis for such an effort, the cornerstone being the internationally recognized recommendations by the Liberian Truth Commission that a justice mechanism must be created. It is important that pressure be put on the current reluctant Liberian government to join these future talks, but the talks should be held nonetheless. The United Nations could be a catalyst for these talks. If this is not possible due to challenges in the Security Council, then the African Union-backed by the European Union should move forward. Certainly, the United States should send a strong signal of support.
As this framework is being developed, a donor’s conference should be held to develop a fund for the new Liberian court. This fund should be managed by an independent body to ensure appropriate oversight and transparency. An independent administrator should be appointed to take this framework for justice, as well as the fund for peace, and develop a plan for future accountability. Within that office, there should be an investigatory body to start gathering any and all information extant and begin turning it into criminal information that may be developed into evidence to be presented to an appropriate justice mechanism someday.
This is a workable effort that is realistic, practical, and financially sustainable in the current pandemic circumstances. Additionally, the efforts by civil society, the Academy, and other grassroots efforts should be encouraged and placed under the suggested administrative office for better coordination.
One of the other lessons learned during the age of accountability is the importance of outreach. This newly created administrative office could develop an outreach program similar to the outstanding program developed and used by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The ability to let the victims tell their stories and be informed on what is going on to seek justice for them, will in and of itself bring peace in anticipation of justice.
It is understood that none of this is simple or easy, yet developing a regional framework of justice with an independent fund, backed by the international community and administered by an approved international administrator with both an investigatory mission, along with a strong outreach program, will set a future stage for a justice mechanism for Liberia. It’s worth the effort, there is no downside and it is better than the current situation.
As I stated many times in walking the countryside in Sierra Leone during my outreach program as Chief Prosecutor there, “the law is fair, no one is above the law, and the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun.” The victims in Sierra Leone now understand this. The victims in Liberia do not. It’s time to show them. We have the ability to do so, the above framework can make it happen. Let’s do it…and soon. As Aldous Huxley pointedly stated: Cynical realism is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation.
David M. Crane, Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone whose plans and strategy laid the path for that international tribunal’s success, to include taking down the President of Liberia Charles Taylor for international crimes and in developing the world’s first outreach/town-hall program. He founded the Global Accountability Network that is currently developing criminal cases for atrocities committed in Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela.
Suggested Citation: David M. Crane, No Justice And No Peace for Liberia? Build A Framework, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 11, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/05/david-crane-liberia-framework/.
This article was prepared for publication by Vishwajeet Deshmukh, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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