By Alphonso Nyenuh
Liberia remains in the strangle-hold of criminals who murdered, raped, tortured and looted the country blind. Until that stranglehold is broken Liberia will continue its downward spiral.
On September 26, 2019, Peter Kieh Doe, a frequent social media commentator, published a piece on Facebook. In that piece titled: “Liberia Does Not Need War Crimes Court: Why?,” Mr. Doe argued that holding war crimes trials now on the horrific crimes committed during our brutal civil war would undermine national security. He also argued that there would not be enough money to support war crimes trials.
Mr. Doe sought to back his arguments about security and adequate funding by pointing to funding and logistical challenges in the Sierra Leone and Rwanda war crimes and genocide trials.
Though Mr. Doe wants us to believe that he is actually in favor of war crimes prosecutions, only not “now,” he doesn’t say when, and under what conditions would war and economic crimes trials be challenge/problem-free. When asked, “if not now, then when? Mr. Doe’s response was shocking “the time will come.”
In this writing, which is in response to Mr. Doe’s, I,
a) question the substance/validity of his arguments that war crimes trials will undermine security.
b) push back on the factual inaccuracies in his claims regarding what actually obtained in the Sierra Leone and Rwanda situations and, by so doing,
c) shed light on the faults in his reasoning and the logical fallacies by which Peter Doe arrived at his conclusions that whatever challenges obtained in Sierra Leone and Rwanda during and after their war crimes and genocide trials will also obtain in Liberia, therefore we should not hold war crimes trials.
Firstly this reasoning (and thus the conclusion that is derived) is faulty; the conditions that obtained in Sierra Leone and Rwanda when they had their war crimes trials are not exactly the same conditions existing today in Liberia. Liberia today is much more stable and much more prepared to absorb any shocks than Sierra Leone and Rwanda were when they held their trials. If Liberia were to hold war crimes trials today, it would be doing so, 16 years removed from the day its war ended. The Sierra Leone Special Court, on the other hand, was established in 2002, and trials began in 2003, barely one year removed from the height of their war. Also, Liberia would have held three democratic elections (void of major violence) and would have made gains in consolidating its security and justice apparatuses, far more than Sierra Leone and Rwanda did when they held their trials.
Secondly, when we anticipate problems in a worthwhile undertaking (as Peter Doe agrees war crimes trials are), we build safeguards to mitigate those problems, we do not abandon that important undertaking.
HOLDING WAR CRIMES TRIALS WILL UNDERMINE PEACE
Peter Doe says that he supports war crimes prosecutions but just not now. According to him, holding war crimes trials “now” will undermine security “because Sierra Leone (a member of the Mano River Union) had security concerns and, like Sierra Leone, Liberia is a member of the Mano River Union and equally has security concerns.”
Peter Doe fails, however, to say what an enabling security environment would look like. He also fails to point to any adverse security event related to Sierra Leone’s war crimes trials as evidence that war crimes trials in Liberia will undermine security. Instead, he points only to security fears similar to his.
Mr. Doe failed to point to any coordinated and consequential act of violence or breach of security in Sierra Leone that is associated with war crimes prosecutions because there’s none. Security fears expressed in Sierra Leone did not materialize. Sierra Leone did not go back to war, and the Sierra Leone security situation did not deteriorate as a consequence of war crimes trials. In fact, I will argue that the security situation in Sierra Leone improved tremendously after their trials, and Sierra Leone took a giant leap forward in securing its future on the deterrent foundation of accountability.
Why didn’t Sierra Leone experience serious security problems? Sierra Leone and the international community took mitigating actions. Concerned that there may be disturbances surrounding the trial of rebel leaders and high-level commanders, they held trials of high profiled suspects and imprisoned those convicted outside the country, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor. They also invited and got security assistance, among other safeguards. Rwanda, given similar concerns based their court in Arusha, Tanzania. They did not abandon or postpone their trials, as Peter Doe is suggesting.
LIBERIA HAS BETTER SECURITY ENVIRONMENT
Another factor worth considering is the fact that unlike Sierra Leone and Rwanda, the Liberian war crimes trials if they were to be held today, would be 16 years removed from the end of the war in Liberia. Most warlords who would be the subject of prosecutions would be more than 16 years removed from command and control of fighting forces, many of the young people who were misled and used as fighters would have gained at least 16 years on top of their ages, would have formed families, and gotten wiser to the fact that they were simply used and abused.
Then, of course, there’s the deterrent effect. Former fighters and potential new fighters, seeing once feared and powerful warlords and commanders prosecuted would likely be deterred, fearing that they too would be held accountable if they ventured into violence.
Put together; these factors mitigate against the likelihood of war or any major security incidents in Liberia if we were to hold war crimes trials.
APPEASEMENT OVER ACCOUNTABILITY
Although they do not explicitly say but, when Peter Doe and his cohorts say ‘war crimes prosecutions will undermine peace’ or ‘bring war,’ what they are actually advocating is appeasement- ‘let’s not anger the abusers by holding them accountable because then they would restart the war and start killing us again.’
This argument is akin to saying let’s leave the criminals to roam, break into our homes, rape our wives and daughters, etc., because if we try to punish them, they may get upset and commit more crimes. Framed differently, leave your child who has been behaving badly because punishing him “now” may lead him to behave even more badly.
I urge you to take a second to internalize this reasoning and ask yourselves, is this is a recipe for peace?
The problem with this argument is that when we leave criminals and criminality to go unaddressed, if we appease criminals, i.e., reward or protect them, for their crimes
they are emboldened to carry out more crimes, at the very least, to justify their crimes.
We remain enslaved to them and their reign of fear and terror, and they will keep threatening us even more.
Others, seeing these criminals go scot-free, and actually being rewarded, either with impunity or with actual power, control, and adoration, are motivated to engage in crimes of their own.
A culture of crime is nurtured and becomes prevalent, and soon law no longer has any real meaning.
The Liberian war continued as long as it did, as a proliferation of warring factions, and the level of dastardly abuses as it did, largely because of appeasement and impunity. Once it became clear that warlordism was the path to power and wealth, politicians who wanted political power took guns, justified their war with ethnic sentiments, and got rewarded with political power, control of the country’s resources, and fame as ethnic liberators. Consequently, more factions formed and perpetuated the war; some engaged in more shocking abuses, because, by being the most feared, or in control of a larger swath of land, they got the largest political and resource pie.
In fact, I will argue that Liberia is seeing the high and brazen level of corruption today largely because of impunity.
COULD WAR CRIMES TRIALS POSE SECURITY CHALLENGES?
Absolutely, certain elements might want to engage in violence or do nefarious things to shield themselves from accountability; I get it. But the way to counter them is not to give in to their bullying and threats; it is to build safeguards, as Sierra Leone and Rwanda did.
Another argument raised by Mr. Doe and others is the challenge of funding.
Mr. Doe uses the funding challenges faced in Sierra Leone and Rwanda during their war crimes prosecution processes to argue that a Liberia war crimes process will also face funding challenges. It is certainly not out of the realm of consideration that there would be financial challenges, but that is true for almost every important undertaking.
If we believe that pursuing accountability is important for our national progress and wellbeing, then what we should do is seek the money, not abandon the project.
In Sierra Leone and Rwanda for example, considering financial challenges, they sought and got help from outside. In Sierra Leone, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah wrote the UN requesting help to set up their war crimes court after the much-coveted Abidjan Peace Agreement collapsed under abuses by warring factions. The Sierra Leone Court was founded by an agreement between Sierra Leone and the United Nations, with a commitment that the court would be entirely supported by voluntary contributions. The U.S. and the United Kingdom contributed the most, not Sierra Leone. Article 6 of the Agreement titled: Expenses of the Court,” states in part: “The expenses of the Court shall be borne by voluntary contributions from the international community…”
The Rwanda process was funded from the U.N. budget and subventions.
Even with the tremendous international goodwill, Liberia should also invest in its own peace and progress by paying towards the cost of war and economic crimes prosecutions. Building a culture of accountability and respect for the rule of law are indispensable pillars of peace and progress that no amount of money, silver, and gold should be spared to attain. You can build all the modern highways and skyscrapers, if you don’t have the rule of law and accountability, you and your people are doomed.
LIBERIA NEEDS WAR CRIMES TRIALS NOW
Ever since the Liberian civil war, the criminals who murdered, raped, tortured, and dis-embowed pregnant women continue their stranglehold on the country and its future. Senators and representatives become senators and representatives because of their war prowess and murderous credentials. The citizenry still lives at the mercy of the criminals who looted and pillaged the resources to enrich themselves. Until that stranglehold is broken Liberia will continue its downward spiral. Liberia and Liberians cannot, and must not be made to wait. We suffered too much and have already waited too long.
About the Author:
Alphonso Nyenuh is accomplished Liberian research, media, and human rights professional, and a former special project and communications officer and assistant to the Executive Director of the National Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Liberia.