Liberia passes a law setting up a long-awaited war crimes court

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President Joseph Boakai on Thursday signed an executive order to create a long-awaited war crimes court to deliver justice to the victims of Liberia’s two civil wars, characterized by widespread mass killings, torture and sexual violence.

Human rights groups have described how girls were subjected to gang rapes, while children were recruited to fight, often after witnessing the killing of their parents. The back-to-back civil wars killed an estimated 250,000 people between 1989 and 2003.

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The legislation was passed by both the parliament and the senate, and signed off by a majority of lawmakers, including some who would face prosecution.

“The conviction that brings us here today is that, for peace and harmony to have a chance to prevail, justice and healing must perfect the groundwork,” Boakai said in a statement.

Victims and activists for justice have been calling for a court to try those accused of war crimes for decades. A post-war truth and reconciliation commission in 2009 identified a list of people to be prosecuted for war crimes, but the government didn’t take action. Justice was a key issue in the presidential election last year, helping Boakai defeat soccer great and then President George Weah.

Liberia War

Joseph Boakai, then Vice-President of Liberia, addresses the 64th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters Friday, Sept. 25, 2009. Liberia’s President Joseph Boakai has signed a resolution to create a long-awaited war crimes court to deliver justice to the victims of the country’s two civil wars, characterized by the widespread and systematic use of mass killings, torture and sexual violence. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Liberia began as a settlement for freed slaves from the United States in 1822, but declared itself an independent nation 25 years later. The resolution calls for international donors to fund the court. A number of legal steps still need that need to happen for an independent and effective court to be set up.

Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. envoy for global criminal justice, said the U.S. would fund the court, if it was set up appropriately, and other donors had also expressed an interest in supporting it once a framework and other details were clear.

“For many citizens of Liberia, they see this as essential to a larger project establishing the rule of law in Liberia, so that there’s faith in institutions,” she said.

Human Rights Watch and other civil society groups published a joint report a year ago calling on the Biden administration to push Liberian officials to set up the long-awaited court and fund its operations.

“Liberian activists have been calling for accountability for these crimes for nearly two decades,” said Lindsay Bailey, a human rights lawyer with the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability. “It is necessary to give victims justice and a full account of what happened to their loved ones. Accountability also helps to build respect for the rule of law and a durable peace.”

Liberia’s post-war truth and reconciliation committee listed eight people as leaders of warring factions, including two who currently serve in the senate. Both signed off on the resolution, including ex-warlord and Sen. Prince Johnson, who said he supported it because his constituents needed justice. Johnson was also named first on the committee’s list of “most notorious perpetrators” and is accused of killing, extortion, massacre, torture and rape among other charges.

Among the other leaders named by the committee in 2009 was Charles Taylor, a former president. Taylor is in jail in the United Kingdom, serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes including murder, rape and using child soldiers. He was the first former head of state convicted by an international war crimes court since World War II.

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While no one has been tried in Liberia, a handful of others have also been convicted of war crimes overseas. Mohammed Jabbateh, a rebel commander who witnesses said sliced a baby out of a pregnant woman’s stomach, killed civilians and ordered his soldiers to rape young girls, was sentenced to 30 years in the U.S.

Kunti Kamara was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, including systematic torture in France.

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