The Liberian access to justice movement

Liberian rights activist Hassan Bility

When we first began working on documenting war crimes and representing victims in their quest for justice in 2012, my team and I stayed largely undercover. Nobody in Liberia knew what we were doing. We wanted to quietly document crimes and build case files without anybody knowing about our work and potentially trying to hinder us in our mission; writes Hassan Bility.

When the first arrests became public, we slowly shifted towards being more publicly outspoken. Many people contacted us to express their support for our work. In 2017, when the “Jungle Jabbah” case went to trial and Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice and Research Project launched the media campaign the “Liberian Quest for Justice,” and as our organization became more outspoken on Liberian radio, the outpour of public support was beyond anything we had expected.

The extraterritorial case of “Jungle Jabbah” and subsequent conviction sparked a grassroots-driven justice movement, demonstrating that the majority of Liberians are yearning for justice. Calls for the implementation of the recommendations of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in favor of setting up a war crimes court are growing louder, more frequent, and more forceful. Even the young generation of Liberians who know of the war only from their parents’ stories are pushing in favor of justice as they see it as an integral part of reconciliation. It is truly a citizens’ movement.

Being a survivor of torture myself and having testified against Charles Taylor in front of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, I knew intimately how healing it was to be granted the right to be heard. I always knew that most Liberian victims wanted justice and that accountability is an important part of moving Liberia forward to build sustainable peace.

However, some might say that there is a paradox in Liberia: on the one hand, the majority of the population is in favor of accountability measures, for example, setting up a Liberian war crimes court. On the other hand, Liberians vote alleged war criminals into positions of power.

Prince Johnson, for example, has been the senator of Nimba County for over ten years and was re-elected three times. He is one of the most notorious former warlords, known for commanding the execution of the former president Samuel Doe, which is infamously documented in a Youtube video. Similarly, George Boley, a former rebel leader who was deported from the United States because of his involvement in the recruitment of child soldiers and extrajudicial killings, was recently elected to be a district lawmaker in Grand Gedeh County.

This effectively makes him part of our national legislative system. Thus, a part of the Liberian population, albeit yearning for justice, is voting for known war criminals. For an outsider this might seem surprising. How can I confidently say that the overwhelming majority of Liberians want justice when, at the same time people freely elect former warlords like Boley and Johnson? In light of the complexities of Liberia, this is not so strange. I see three main reasons for the elections of former warlords that I outline below. I beg my Liberian readers to excuse my simplification of these complex issues.

1. Tribalism.Complicated ethnic considerations play into our current reality. Many people in counties like Nimba and Grand Gedeh, though not all, feel that the best protection is through electing a notorious leader from their own ethnic group, who is feared by others. At the origin of this protective mechanism are deep scars from the legacy of the fourteen years of civil war in Liberia. This shows that reconciliation has still not been fully achieved and that trauma continues to run deep in our society. I am a firm believer in reconciliation through justice and hope that trials of all factions could help victims on all sides of the tribal divides heal to a certain extent.

2. Fear. The Liberian people who lived through fourteen years of civil war have a deeply instilled fear of rebel commanders. Charles Taylor was famously elected under the slogan “he killed my pa,he killed my ma, I am going to vote for him.” This mentality is still somewhat present in Liberian society today and contributes to the elections of feared former rebel commanders like Boley and Johnson. While some vote for former warlords because of ethnic considerations, as explained above, others do so out of fear of these warlords, who, if not elected, might take up arms again and plunge, at least parts of the country, back into war.

3. Lack of civic and human rights education. Many Liberian people quietly accepted the positions of power that former warlords hold because they have resigned and accepted this reality. This resignation is partially caused by the fact that impunity was the status quo for so long that our people had lost all belief in the possibility of any form of accountability. Moreover they did not know enough about the possible ways to find access to jutice. This is now in the process of changing, as described above, with our extraterritorial cases reigniting the national accountability discussion.

The “Jungle Jabbah” trial had such a considerable effect on the Liberian population because it showed them, for the first time, that impunity does not have to be the norm. Many Liberians believe that access to justice is a privilege. But they need to understand that it is their right. With the many extraterritorial cases coming up and the overwhelming movement of Liberian victims making their voices heard nationally as well as globally, I strongly believe that we are in the process of changing Liberia. Liberians are only now starting to realize their own strength and power to change things. International law provides tools for them to find justice beyond their borders and pressure their own leaders to establish accountability measures in their own country.

The paradox described above exists because true reconciliation has not yet happened in our country. The way forward needs to be carefully but forcefully paved. Justice and education must be cornerstones of our society, as must be an understanding of other tribes and our respective wounds and traumas. A Liberian access to justice movement is in full force.

Bility is director of the Global Justice and Research Project

Courtesy of Civitas Maxima