Monrovia — Liberian Nobel Peace prize laureate Leymah Gbowee urged Liberian voters not to elect alleged warlords in October’s elections at one of two events held Friday to commemorate 20 years since the signing of the Accra Peace Agreement that brought an end to 14 years of conflict in 2003.
Gbowee spoke at an event hosted by Liberian advocates for a war crimes court, along with international organizations Human Rights Watch and U.S.-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA). Also among the attendees were victims of Liberia’s wars and members of the diplomatic community including Urban Sjöström, Sweden’s Ambassador to Liberia, and Juan Martinez, political officer at the U.S. embassy in Liberia.
Organizers said President George Weah did not respond to their invitation to attend the event, which pointedly called Liberia’s last 20 years “stability” rather than “peace” and condemned politicians like President Weah who have refused to back a war crimes court. Instead, President Weah attended another event held in Monrovia by a group called Crusaders for Peace, which was also attended by diplomatic representatives and victims.
Gbowee, who led women’s groups who pressured warring parties in Liberia’s wars to end the carnage that claimed estimated 250,000 lives, said Liberia had a bleak future with ongoing impunity. That impunity has extended to scores of government officials in the administrations of Weah and his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who have been fired for alleged corruption, but never prosecuted. Gbowee challenged voters to elect candidates who would implement the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation to implement a war crimes court. Several of the TRC’s “most notorious perpetrators” are serving as elected lawmakers in the Legislature.
“Stop rewarding them with votes,” said Gbowee. “Until we begin to start dealing with those first, who gave us war on a silver platter, until we make justice a key issue for our daily life, we will not see peace. Everything that we see happening in this country is because of our attitude of impunity. What we have is a country, where we do not hear the sound of gun word. It doesn’t mean that we are at peace. The next 20 years is calling on all of us, regardless of which side of the divide we stand on, to raise our voices for justice, because without justice, there can be no peace.”
The governments of Sirleaf, also a Nobel Laureate, and incumbent President Weah, blocked the establishment of a court. International human rights advocates condemned President Weah’s inaction.
“President Weah has disappointed Liberians and the international community,” said Elise Keppler, Associate International Justice Director and Associate General Counsel at Human Rights Watch, during a panel at the conference. “The president took the floor of the UN General Assembly in 2019 and said, ‘We will move ahead with a court. We are exploring modalities.’ And that was pretty much the last we’ve heard from him on the matter.”
President Weah made no mention of the court when he spoke at the government sponsored event at the ministerial complex in Congo Town.
“Those that brought the war, it’s the same people that threatening there will be war. It doesn’t make sense,” said President Weah. “I lost my young brother. We all lost families. And that’s why we say let us forget about all the.. I will say yo, yo. We are Liberians. Whether you like it or not, George Weah has done something for Liberia. Our people don’t want to read that record. But the international community know what I have achieved here. People brought war and we disarmed. We are fighting for peace. Those that have their credit, even if they don’t want to give us credit, we don’t care. But we did it from our heart.”
At the advocates’ event, attendees said they were frustrated and disappointed over how some alleged perpetrators had been unremorseful and had boasted about their roles during the wars. They pointed to the call last week by former National Patriotic Front of Liberia commander Roland Duo that he should be rewarded with a senate seat for his role in the civil war. Duo, who is named in the TRC list of most notorious perpetrators, is running against Johnson in Nimba. Former vice president and Unity Party’s standard bearer, Joseph Boakai has secured Johnson’s backing in the presidential race. Boakai has not responded to FPA/NN requests for comment on whether he would back a court.
Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, standard bearer of the Liberia People’s Party, who also hails from Nimba, warned the conference that impunity was hanging over Liberia.
“All of us need to make accountability the number one issue in this election,” said Gongloe. “If we consider justice an important issue, why vote for a political party that is aligning with warlords? Because, then you are promoting impunity yourself. Impunity is a threat to our peace and stability. It’s a threat to reconciliation and unity.”
Organizers of the activists’ event said they had invited all the political parties, but Gongloe was the only presidential candidate present. He was also the first presidential candidate to sign a “commitment” for the court. Alexander Cummings, standard bearer for the Coalition of Collaborating Parties, is the only other leading candidate who has committed to holding a court. He was not at either event. Neither was Boakai.
Organizers of the conference also brought leading human rights advocates from The Gambia and Nigeria to speak on justice lessons learned abroad. Those activists had stern messages for the Liberian activists.
Oludayo Fabemi of the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, filed a suit with the ECOWAS Community of Justice against the Liberian government on behalf of for four victims of the infamous St. Peters’ Lutheran Church Massacre in July 1990 who are represented by GJRP and CJA. He was astounded Liberian activists had not done that.
“You’ve heard things, you’ve witnessed things, you’ve lost people,” said Fabemi. “So, imagine my surprise that the ECOWAS court started hearing human rights cases in 2005 and the first case about these atrocities in Liberia only comes in 2022? 17 years later, what are we doing? Shouldn’t we make it imperative for the government to have no choice but to carry out investigative and prosecutorial activities about these crimes? I think we should.”
Sirra Ndow of The Gambian based justice advocates, the African Network Against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances, shared her experience of how they had succeeded in compelling the government to investigate and prosecute alleged human rights violators from the regime of dictator Yahya Jammeh through a “hybrid-internationalized court.”
Ndow urged advocates to push Liberia’s international donors – the biggest are the U.S., Sweden and the E.U. – to make donor support contingent on a court.
“We really align ourselves very closely with our international partners and tell them what we want,” said Ndow. “And in some cases, really ask them to make this [court] a precondition of your support. And that is a very way too powerful way of supporting of pressuring the government.”
Sirra Ndow is a Gambian human rights advocate.Keppler also shared how collective efforts by CSOs in the Central African Republic and Guinea had pressured their leaders approve transitional justice mechanisms. In Guinea, thirteen years after a stadium massacre led by members of the military, it began prosecuting alleged perpetrators of the mass murder that claimed 150 lives and saw rape and torture of victims.
“Guinea is the most recent example of a breakthrough, historic effort at criminal accountability for the most serious crimes happening very close to Liberia,” said Keppler. “The question is, what is the blockage and how can it be overcome? I think we know many of the reasons and that goes straight to the question of Liberia’s leaders willingness to take the step of committing to justice and requesting that partnership with the UN with the U.S. to help create a court. What we need to see for that to move ahead is all activists, victims and other members of the population to make this an issue that cannot be ignored. The leaders will not do it on their own. They need to hear from you about the importance of this issue.”
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.