Liberia: Gov't Inaugurates Truth and Reconciliation Commission

21 February 2006

"A Truth and Reconciliation Commission shall be established to provide a forum that will address issues of impunity, as well as an opportunity for both 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. In the spirit of national reconciliation, the Commission shall deal with the root-causes of the crises in Liberia, including human rights violations" - CPA, Accra, AUGUST 18, 2003.

With this, stakeholders to the Liberian peace process ended discussions on whether or not war excesses should be punished. Following more than two years of formative arrangements, the Commission has been given form and teeth. "But will Liberians brace themselves for the challenges head; will the culture of silence be broken?" is the question many are asking. The Analyst's Staff Writer has been leafing through President Sirleaf's investiture speech.

Have you ever imagined a day when the perpetrators of violence in the Liberian society will pray for mercy or face justice in order to lay the foundation for a new nation?

Well, that day of reckoning, of rewards and penalties, is in the offing, if the Sirleaf Administration finds the required wherewithal soon enough.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, yesterday, inaugurated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and charged it with the responsibility to make that day a reality in the shortest possible time in order to help resolve Liberia's historical fallacies and set the nation on a new footing.

According to her, her administration expects the TRC to put into place that will cleanse and sanctify the land, unifying the people into a national space disregarding ethnic, religious, creed, or social statuses of those who might be opposed to the proccess.

This, she said, would be achieved if the TRC makes the process inclusive by adopting approaches that cut across tribes and step up community-based groups that are not vertical or mainly city-based.

"Second, we envisage that the process will catalyze our nation to the re-writing of our national history. I am aware that the construction of a nation's history is a difficult exercise, but it is an exercise without which our nation cannot be rebuilt," she said.

Statutorily, the TRC which comprises nine commissioners, five men and four women, is mandated to document all abuses, validate and establish the narratives of both victims and victimizers or perpetrators, paying particular attention to women, children, the elderly, and other vulnerable members of society.

Moreover, amongst other responsibilities, it is mandated to provide at the end of process clear and workable recommendations on how the nation can collectively restitute for the past-and move on in unity to face the future.

In addition to these mandates, President Johnson wants the TRC to create a healthy balance between restorative and retributive justice.

In order words, she wants the nation and its people to make the sacrifice of rehabilitating less liable victimizers and restoring the value and dignity of the victims of the war while putting into place a mechanism through which those most liable for crimes against humanity will be made to pay for their crimes.

She said while in tune with the advice of some Liberians it would be better to let bygone be bygone the avoidance of the truth and reconciliation process in order to avoid the difficulties involved will be even riskier to the present and future of the nation and its people.

"We must make collective restitution to those victimized, rehabilitate the victimizers, while at the same time visiting some forms of retribution upon those whose violations qualify as crimes against humanity," she noted.

Believing that truth often redeems humanity from the cowardice claws of violence, the Liberian Chief Executive said Liberia would be cleansed just by knowing who committed the Carter Camp, Duport Road, Garplay, St. Peter's Lutheran Church, and many other massacres during Liberia's 14 years of bloodletting.

More than that, she said, there was the need to exonerate the dead from what she called "historical right or wrong" and accord them "sacrificial victim-hood," their blood having cleansed the omen in the land.

This could be done by searching out mass graves and according the bodies contained in them proper burials in keeping with traditions and culture.

"We must therefore be courageous sufficiently as a nation to face up to the past and revile as an affront to all civilized people the despicable acts our people endured during the past 14 years of our civil conflict. Such collective disapproval will have a prophylactic effect that assures a sense of safety-and therefore restores our nation's much needed social capital and dignity," she said.

She then called the inauguration of the TRC "an unprecedented testament to the courage we summoned as nation and people to reckon with our shameful and despicable past-and to established a consensus on national truth" and then proceeded to say that no action now will haunt the nation.

"The myths, the mysteries, and the individualized arrogation of the truth will serve no useful purpose. Rather it will reinforce divisions, suspicions, and smoldering anger. Our nation must therefore dig deep into its past and find a way to develop a national truth which we will collectively own and reconcile.

There are too many historical fallacies, contradictions, and interpretations that stare us in our faces and beg corrective actions. Beginning today, we must summon the courage and the will to confront and resolve them," she noted further.

Through the TRC, it is the expectation of the Sirleaf Administration; the culture of distributive justice will be removed, opening up the window for the construction of a strong, cohesive, and supple statehood.

She said unless there is Divine intervention in the lives of Liberians, it would be impossible for true reconciliation defined in compassionate and contrite hearts encountering each other, to occur.

"As a mother, a grandmother, and a servant of our nation, I can only call on all our people to pray for compassionate and contrite hearts-and to pursue forgiveness with sincerity," she said.

She however alerted Liberians to the reality of the process, revealing that all stories would not be heard but that the "temporal limitations are in no way an attempt to invalidate or ignore other violations in our nation's history".

With so much trust placed in the ability of the TRC to create a cohesive new nation, the question observers are asking is, "Will Liberians brace themselves for the challenges ahead?" Amongst challenges facing the victims and perpetrators is the question of whether or not the victims will muster the courage to say truly what happened and who masterminded it. And whether the perpetrators will command enough magnanimity to submit to the authority of the TRC, confront their past, accept blames without feeling betrayed and therefore vengeful, apologize, and seek forgiveness?

The challenges are even compounded and pronounced, observers said, when it is realized that some major perpetrators, including former warlords and battle-front commanders, are dead, fled into exile or into seclusion, or taken up high-profile positions in government where they have probably obtained legal sanctuary.

"How the TRC will possibly deal with a senator or representative who took part in massacres? If such legislator or cabinet minister confesses to murder or massacre, will it not undermine or nullify whatever immunity was endowed him or her by the Constitution of Liberia?" wondered Samuel P. Wondah of Clara Town.

Wondah said besides the problem posed by the political status of some suspected perpetrators, the next question that confronts those who have stories to tell is security for their person.

"What happens to those who will confess and point fingers? Will they be protected against reprisals? What if they lie or their allegations cannot be proven or corroborated? Remember some of these perpetrators of violence upon the people still maintain elements of fear over their former victims to the extent that some were even voted into power in the last election," said Molley K. Toweh.

While some say Wondah and Toweh are being unnecessarily hypothetical too soon, analysts say their concerns are genuinely fundamental to the success of the TRC.

How readily is the TRC and the nation's international mentors going to address these concerns-to be proactive-they say, holds the difference between failure and success.

The TRC was established by an Act of the National Legislature on June 10, 2005, two years after it was prescribed by the CPA.

Says Article VII Section 14 of the Act Establishing the TRC, "Appropriate measures shall be taken to minimize inconvenience to victims, when necessary, to protect their privacy, to ensure their safety and that of their families or witnesses testifying on their behalf." It did not say how given that most victims and perpetrators live in the same, sometime isolated communities.

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