Moving on from 14 years of conflict

“Vested interests” are hampering Liberia’s recovery from civil war by failing to address key recommendations of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), according to a new report.

The International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) said that as politicians, the media and the public limited their focus to the possible prosecutions of big names, including the president, little was being done to compensate victims of war crimes, set up new human rights commission or develop a “palava hut” system of community peace-building.

The TRC recommended two courts be set up to prosecute 182 individuals for gross violations of human rights, international humanitarian law and domestic crimes and that a further 49 companies or people be tried for economic crimes.

The list includes President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who could be barred from public office for 30 years for allegedly financing war criminals.

“Many people who have a personal vested interest in the recommendations not going forward are very critical of the whole report,” ICTJ programme associate Lizzie Goodfriend told IRIN. “Our goal is to help Liberian actors engage more comprehensively in the [reconciliation] debate… In the six months since the report came out there has not been a lot of movement.”

Many of the TRC’s recommendations provide important levers for Liberians to move on from their 14-year conflict, said Goodfriend. “The government needs to ensure Liberians from all corners treat the TRC recommendations as a matter of urgency.”

Recommendations need honing

There is still work to be done - all reconciliation recommendations require honing, said the NGO, for instance to define the scope and powers of the “palava hut” process, or specify who should receive reparations and under what criteria.

Sierra Leone’s reparations scheme and South Africa’s victim-support movement can be tapped into for good practice, she said.

Under the proposed Liberia scheme US$500 million will be spent over 30 years on mental and physical health, economic, educational and infrastructure projects. These should be linked to ongoing development programmes, Goodfriend urged. “Liberia could set an innovative precedent in linking reparations and development,” she pointed out.

Prosecutions-wise, civil society groups have criticized the process by which some of the 239 names were put forward, citing insufficient evidence in certain cases. The ICTJ recommends a new professional investigation process be set up, and the Ministry of Justice is considering turning to foreign countries to help with prosecutions, given its insufficient capacity.

Liberians have for decades used traditional reconciliation processes - discussions between victim and perpetrator, mediated by village chiefs - to resolve conflicts, but extending the “palava hut” system country-wide means it must be linked to the formal justice sector, to avoid tensions between the two, says the ICTJ.

Next steps

Last month President Sirleaf sent the TRC recommendations to the legislature, and called on the Ministry of Justice to set up a task force to take forward its recommendations. “This is a start,” said Goodfriend.

But the proposed setting up of a human rights commission to ensure the government implements human rights policies is not yet under way.

Donors also need to step up and financially support the government to help bring forward certain recommendations, says the ICTJ.

“The whole transitional justice field is premised on the fact that if you don’t meet needs of victims and deal with abuses committed in the past in a meaningful way, then the past can come back to haunt you, and there could be a repeat of violence,” said Goodfriend. “The TRC is just the beginning of that process in Liberia and if this work does not continue, then efforts will have been in vain and the needs of victims in Liberia’s conflict will not be fully met.”