23 June 2006

Liberia: Gov't Formally Launches TRC - Will The Victims Please Come Forward?

The government of Liberia, yesterday, formally launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with appropriate indoor activities reportedly in all political subdivisions of the country.

Yesterday's launch of the TRC did not only affirm the commission's independence of action and decision, but it also opened the way for the commencement of the activities nationwide that will hopefully lead to reconciliation, the undoing of the culture of impunity, and the establishment of a new order for a sustainable democratization of the nation.

Liberians are divided over the achievability of the mandate given mainly the tenure of operation of the commission compared to the elaborateness of the mandate that include the holding of thousands of public and secret hearings involving participants that are cast across the globe.

The TRC has only two years to implement the mandate thereby reinforcing the doubts of some observers that commission will conclude its activities on time let alone to achieve the set goals.

Other observers, though, say it is too early to talk about time and achievability, insisting that Liberians have no option but to put their hopes and aspirations in the success of the TRC.

The choice of the TRC over a war crime court, they insist, created a moral imperative for all Liberians to rally to the success of the processes.

Whatever the arguments and their bases, analysts say the true basis of the commission's success lies not in what observers believe and think but squarely in how it endears itself and its programs and activities to those crucial to the reconciliation process.

According to them, it depends also on how the government of Liberia and the international stakeholders collaborate and cooperate with members of the commission to ensure adequate financial, security, and moral supports.

Basically, the commission is expected to provide a forum that will address issues of impunity, as well as opportunities for both the victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to share their experiences in order to get a clear picture of the past to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation.

This, according to the CPA, is necessary in order to maintain the spirit of national reconciliation while dealing with the root causes of the crises in Liberia, including human rights violations.

It will specifically be investigating gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law as well as abuses that occurred between January 1979 and October 14, 2003.

Some of the abuses, according to Article IV of the Act establishing the TRC, include massacres, sexual violations, murder, extra-judicial killings and economic crimes.

Amongst acts considered under the Act as economic crimes is the exploitation of natural or public resources to perpetuate armed conflicts.

Some say there are exploitations of natural resources that predate the events of 1979 and that because of that the full story or the full line of perpetrators of economic crimes will not be established let alone to ensure true healing and forgiveness.

"Notwithstanding the period specified herein, the Commission may, on an application by any person or group of persons, pursue the objectives set out in this Article IV (Mandate of the Commission) in respect of any other period preceding 1979," the act said in anticipation arguments that 1979 is not an appropriate starting point in probing Liberia's problems.

The commission is expected to make elaborate use of this provision, the act says, in order to conduct a critical review of Liberia's historical past, the goal being to establish and give recognition to historical truths in order to address falsehoods and misconceptions of the past relating to the nation's socio-economic and political development.

This will require the commission, according to Article VII of the act creating the TRC, to determine whether or not such violations were the result of deliberate planning on the part of the state, authority, or political organization, movement or group of individuals.

It will do this by gathering, by means it deems appropriate, any information it considers relevant, including the ability to request reports, assistance of foreign governments, non-resident Liberians, records, documents or any information from any source, including governmental authorities, and to compel the production of such information as and when necessary.

A special magistrate to be appointed with the consent of the Senate will preside over the equivalence of a circuit court that will have the power to issue warrants of search and seizure, warrants of arrest for contempt, and subpoenas.

It will also issue citations to obtain information and testimonies to enable the commission to visit any establishment or place without giving prior notice, and to enter upon any land or premises for any purpose which is material to the fulfillment of its mandate and in particular, for the purpose of obtaining testimonies which may be vital to its works.

"Any person who willfully obstructs or otherwise interferes with the work of the TRC or any of its members or officers in the discharge of their functions under this Act, commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not less than US $300.00 and not more than US $500.00 or its Liberian dollar equivalent for the first offence to include a term of imprisonment not less than six months or both fine and imprisonment depending on the gravity of the offence," the act notes.

In order to endear itself to victims and perpetrators, the commission will grant immunity to all persons or groups of persons, organizations or institutions from prosecution or tort actions on account of statements made or evidence given before the TRC.

As part of the immunity, such testimonies will not be used in any court of law against the person making the statement.

"Any person who has been subpoenaed or called upon to appear before the Commission may appoint a legal representative. The Commission may in order to expedite proceedings place reasonable limitations with regard to the time allowed for cross-examination of witnesses or any address to the Commission," the act said.

What exactly this clause means with regards to individuals currently holding constitutional immunity that may be held liable is not clear, but at the end of the process, the commission intends to help restore the human dignity of victims and promote reconciliation.

It will do so by providing opportunities for victims, witnesses, and others to give accounts of the violations and abuses suffered and for perpetrators to relate their experiences, in an environment conducive to constructive interchange between victims and perpetrators, giving special attention to the issues of sexual and gender based violence, and most especially to the experiences of children and women during armed conflicts in Liberia.

The TRC will recommend, according to the act, "amnesty under terms and conditions established by the TRC upon application of individual persons making full disclosures of their wrongs and thereby expressing remorse for their acts and/or omissions, whether as an accomplice or a perpetrator, provided that amnesty or exoneration shall not apply to violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity in conformity with international laws and standards." Meanwhile the Chairman of TRC, Cllr. Jerome J. Verdier, Sr., has warned Liberians against ignoring or compromising the realities of Liberia's past that led to the establishment of the commission.

According to him the realties that include the prejudice of the class or status, nepotism and the tendencies to regroup, the culture of impunity, the scourge of illiteracy and ignorance, and leadership without compassion, have grossly undermined the security and development of this country since its founding.

"The TRC process will be open, transparent, and accountable to all, including Liberians abroad," he said, disclosing that yesterday's launch of the commission proceeded simultaneously throughout the country in order to establish from the onset that the process is not a Monrovia-based affair.

He then assured all Liberians and friends of Liberia that there would not be witch-hunting but that the process would be scrupulously carried out to unravel and document the truth in vigorous pursuit of the commission's goals.

"We will take advantage of the wisdom of our traditional and religious leaders and explore all means to incorporate them into the processes of the TRC," Cllr. Verdier said when he spoke at the launch of the commission yesterday.

If the wisdom of traditional leaders is circumspectly blended with the safety-guides contained in the Act establishing the TRC, observers say, there is no question that the testimonies of the victims and the pleas of guilt of the perpetrators are bound to lead to the creation of the environments of security and justice and to the drudgery of more bitterness, feelings of betrayal, and un-fulfillment.

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