Monrovia — Liberia's relatively young Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) is about to test its "milk teeth" as it prepares to launch an investigation into the first major case of human rights abuse filed against the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The high profile case in which UNICEF is accused of exploiting and abusing under-aged Liberian children who acted in a UNICEF film titled "Soldier Boy", landed on the doorsteps of Liberia's human rights commission after the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice failed to proceed into the case because of the immunity enjoyed by UNICEF as an agency of the United Nations. UNICEF claims that the film was produced as part of their advocacy for children in Liberia.
But lawyers for the children contend that the Hollywood-style action film, which portrays the Liberian children as ruthless killers, cannibals, dope addicts, prostitutes, etc, and sold on the global film market for up to $200 per copy, was only intended to generate illegal profit. They argue that this extremely negative portrayal caused the children to be stigmatized and to become a laughing stock and objects of hatred in their schools and communities. A $25 million lawsuit was filed in the ECOWAS Court of Justice in an effort to get compensation for the children. Unlike the ECOWAS Court, which is limited by protocols ratified by ECOWAS member states, the INCHR has a mandate that gives it full authority to investigate all cases of human rights abuse in Liberia.
Although the Commission lacks the power to shut down UNICEF or send its officials to jail, its findings and recommendations can easily lead to UNICEF being stripped of its immunities for prosecution by local or international courts, including the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and even courts in Liberia and the sub-region which have the mandate to punish violators of human rights.
Officials of INCHR have not yet made any public statement on the case, but it is expected that an official hearing will be conducted during which the accusers will have an opportunity to confront UNICEF with the evidence they have, following which INCHR will prepare its findings and recommendations on the matter.
Cllr. Sayma Syrennius Cephus, who is representing the abused children, told the media that this case is an opportunity for the human rights body to put its feet down and prove that there are no "sacred cows" when it comes to human rights abuse, and that justice will be delivered in full no matter the status of the perpetrators or victims.