LIBERIA: Mixed feelings about truth commission’s purpose

Friday, January 11, 2008

Many Liberians observing the opening of the country’s first public truth and reconciliation commission hearings on 8 January were confused about what the hearings would mean if the accused would not be prosecuted afterwards.

Read an IRIN report on the opening of the public hearings  

Priscilla Hayner, an expert at the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in Geneva said it is “normal” in post-conflict environments that people doubt the importance of speaking collectively about war at first. She said that once the TRC’s final report is drawn up attitudes might change.

“The story is still being written. It’s true that in some countries the public does take a cynical and untrusting approach to the process, but then at the end the report can be extraordinarily powerful. Sometimes it goes the other way and after a great investigation the Commission struggles to get it on paper.”

The TRC has faced a hard slog in Liberia, trying to match very high expectations with few resources, Hayner noted.

However Anthony Valke, Liberia head of the American Bar Association, an international non-governmental organisation working on judicial reform in Liberia, said the public’s interest in the TRC is too low for it to count.

“From our perspective, the TRC has not been able to properly carry out a robust information campaign about its role that would target perpetrators and guarantee amnesty to those perpetrators who are willing to come up and tell their stories.”

Valke said the TRC’s refusal to guarantee amnesty and its unusual step of retaining the right to recommend prosecutions will dissuade most former fighters from attending.

“Most of them are scared to come forward as the TRC and the government is not clear about amnesty for them”, he said.

IRIN spoke with several victims of the war and former fighters and what follows are excerpts of their testimonials.

Abu Dorley, victim

“It is difficult for me to accept an apology from someone who brutally killed five of my family members – my mother, father and three sisters - before my very eyes in 1991. I want this person who committed the acts to be put on trial for atrocities because of the trauma he has caused in my life.

“The rebel fighter who did the killings still moves freely in Monrovia as if he has not committed any atrocity. I do not believe the TRC public hearing of my testimony will solve the pain and trauma I have been going through.”

Miatta Momoh, victim

One child soldier killed all 19 of Momoh’s cousins in northern Liberia in 1995.

“There is no guarantee from the TRC that those who killed our families, loved ones and friends, raped our mothers and sisters, burnt down our villages and towns will be brought to justice as is the case with former President Charles Taylor now on trial in the Hague.

“This child soldier is now in the new Liberian Police Force. Our other family members in Monrovia can not easily forgive him unless he is tried.”

Abraham Suah, victim

Rebel fighters killed Suah’s seven month pregnant wife at the start of the civil war in 1989.

“Just telling a victim sorry is a recipe for another round of atrocities as those perpetrators could do the same acts again in the future and rely on apologies, but when one is tried and convicted of war crimes, it would serve as deterrent to others.

Shad Sherman, former rebel

“As a former fighter, I know how most of my friends feel. They regret their actions and most of us are afraid to reach out to those who we wronged during the war, unless it is within a framework like the hearings which are sanctioned by government.

“Because I am afraid of what would happen to me I cannot personally go a particular family whose house I burnt down during the war. So the hearing will be good for me to meet them at the TRC forum.

Abel Peckor, former government soldier

“All fighters decided to cease fire, disarm and move on with our lives and not repeat the mistake of taking up weapons against our own people.

“We are all striving for survival and if people begin pointing fingers at us, then we will be stigmatised and our hopes for survival will be dampened. No one will want to deal with us.”

Source: IRIN