18 December 2018

Liberia: The Call for War Crimes Court Needs Clarity for Public Understanding

Photo: Special Court for Sierra Leone
Transfer of Charles Taylor for trial for war crimes in the Hague (file photo).

The call for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court to prosecute people who bear greater responsibilities in the Liberian civil war has recently become one of the daily issues discussed on public platforms in the country.

A large segment of the public is pushing for this establishment with the objective of ending impunity. One of its key advocates is Grand Kru County Representative, Fonati Koffa, who claims that the establishment of such a court will serve as a deterrent for people with the mindset of committing evil.

Koffa said the civil war brought deep division in Liberia, and impunity was not anything that people should favor. Yet, he conceded that the Weah administration would address the issue of a war crimes court "in its own time", which could mean 'never'.

In previous times a number of events complementing the call for a war crimes court were held; one of which was the justice conference, organized early November. In that conference American Ambassador-at-Large Stephen Rapp asserted that "As long as war crimes perpetrators are still around, a court can be established to prosecute them regardless of how long it takes."

One person who has been pinpointed for prosecution in the establishment of this court is Nimba County Senator and former warlord Prince Johnson. Emphasis placed on him perhaps has always provoked his anger and caused him to threaten instability if the court is established.

On the other hand, the emphasis placed on Prince Johnson has also generated the feeling that call for the court is aimed at a particular person or group, and some segments of the Gio and Mano tribes that felt disenchanted and participated in the war for fear of being dragged to the court on the basis of collective guilt.

It is because of this perception that many of them are siding with their hero. They join him in expressing the fear that such could lead to another civil conflict in the country.

The misconception surrounding the establishment of a war crimes court also encompasses time for such an event. Many people believe that this should have happened as soon as the war ended; and that calling for it at this time is belated and tantamount to a witch hunt.

In this confused state of debate, it is better to advocate for the court through educating the public, to enable them to understand clearly why the court is important and necessary for those involved to face it. This is important because some victims do not know that what they encountered constitute war crimes. Many fighters, too, need to understand why, as long as they fought in the civil war, some of them, probably many, committed war crimes.

It is also necessary for all involved, victims and perpetrators alike, to understand that fighting alone may or may not constitute war crimes. Of course, it is also necessary to include those who played key roles in starting the war that led to the loss of over 250,000 lives and the near total devastation of the country's infrastructure.

Let us provide a few of what constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to the Rome Statute, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 listed acts that constitute war crimes. These include willful killing, torture or inhumane treatment, including biological experiments willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health; extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, and compelling a prisoner of war or other protected persons to serve in the forces of a hostile power.

Other acts associated with war crimes are willfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial; unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement and taking of hostages; intentionally directing attacks against civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities; and intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives.

Under the Rome Statute, crimes against humanity also include but are not limited to the following: murder (intentional and unlawful homicide), extermination (total destruction of people), enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity.

Genocide, the other forms of crime associated with war include killing members of a group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Conscription of child soldiers is another charge associated with war crimes. This means recruiting forcibly or in other forms children below 18 years who cannot make decision for themselves.

Meanwhile, those opposing the establishment of a war crimes court have always capitalized on the restoration of justice and the full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final recommendations.

What some people often forget, however, is that implementing the recommendations of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) also requires establishing a special court to prosecute people identified as those bearing greater responsibility in the war.

The Daily Observer holds the belief that impartial justice is a way forward to ending uncertainty about a war crimes court. But as the advocacy intensifies, let it go with education that will enlighten the population on the significance of a war crimes court, who should be prosecuted and for which alleged war crime(s).

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