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A long road ahead for justice in Liberia

Recent arrests in Europe reignite debate on national accountability in Ebola-stricken nation

February 23, 2015 2:00AM ET

Schools in Liberia reopened this week after a six-month closure due to the Ebola outbreak. Until the epidemic began in April 2014, the international media largely ignored Liberia, particularly since the end of the country’s tragic civil wars. Now that the disease is finally being brought under control, Africa’s oldest independent republic will once again become an afterthought. Yet these two seemingly disparate stories, one of a bloody civil war and the other of a botched government response to an epidemic, have a common thread: Liberia’s long-standing tradition of impunity. 

A less-reported story from Liberia offers some signs of hope for the end of impunity. In the last few months, the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), in partnership with Swiss-based nonprofit Civitas Maxima, helped initiate the arrests of two of Liberia’s previously untouchable human rights abusers.

In September 2014, Martina Johnson, a former artillery commander of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a major rebel group in Liberia’s first civil war, from 1989 to 1997, was arrested and indicted in Belgium for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Two months later, Swiss authorities arrested Alieu Kosiah, a commander in the opposing rebel group, United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO) on similar charges. ULIMO represented a different tribal community and was opposed to the NPFL politically and militarily. Both investigations and arrests were prompted by the GJRP’s documentation of crimes and criminal complaints filed on behalf of victims, with Civitas Maxima’s assistance.

Liberia was still struggling to recover from its bloody past when the Ebola epidemic hit. An estimated 150,000 to 250,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during two successive civil wars, which lasted roughly from 1989 to 2003. Yet the numbers do not even begin to demonstrate the real horror of the wars and the ruthless way in which the armed factions treated civilians. To terrorize local populations deemed unsympathetic to their causes or belonging to opposing ethnic groups, armed militias committed widespread sexual violence, forced displacement, looting, conscription of child soldiers and cannibalism.

The signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between rebel groups and the government in 2003, which ended the second civil war, was followed by an overwhelming call from Liberian citizens to hold the conflict’s key perpetrators accountable. Liberians watched neighboring Sierra Leone with great interest as a U.N.-backed special court tried the country’s warring factions for a civil war that took place from 1991 to 2002. Ironically, the Sierra Leonean court even tried and convicted former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor for his role in that conflict. Liberian leaders failed to set up similar accountability mechanisms. In fact, some of the war’s worst perpetrators assumed positions of power in the new government against recommendations from the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an independent body set up to investigate crimes committed during the two civil wars.

Why would Liberians heed corrupt government officials’ orders not to bury their loved ones, shake one another’s hands and observe a curfew on the streets?

The international community, which spends millions of dollars on postconflict rebuilding projects and development aid in Liberia, has largely acquiesced to this failure. I had been granted a green card in the United States after being tortured by Taylor’s regime for my work as journalist. Once it became clear that there was no political will to implement the TRC’s recommendations, I returned to Liberia to fight for justice.

The consequences of the failure to end impunity have gone far beyond the absence of justice for the victims of wartime atrocities. Predictably, after allowing the war’s worst offenders to escape accountability, Liberia’s postwar government has largely been ineffective. For example, corruption and nepotism continue to plague key government institutions.

“Long-standing deficiencies within the judicial system and security sector as well as insufficient efforts to address official corruption continue to undermine development and human rights in Liberia,” Human Rights Watch observed in a 2014 report.

This has in turn created a trust deficit between the government and citizenry. In fact, it was this lack of trust that undermined Liberia’s initial response to Ebola. While the public health infrastructure was practically nonexistent, the government-led health information campaigns did not yield desired results. Why would Liberians heed corrupt government officials’ orders not to bury their loved ones, shake one another’s hands and observe a curfew on the streets — a measure that they last experienced when Taylor ruled the country?

One might think that the arrests of former commanders who led quiet lives in Europe are the least of the Liberians’ concerns. But a closer look at reports in the Liberian media, general reactions in Liberia and discussions on social media tell a different story. The arrests were widely featured and discussed in the Liberian media as a milestone in the victims’ longstanding quest for justice. The arrests helped reignite a conversation around national accountability efforts on social media and in the streets of Monrovia. It has become clear that the wounds of the civil war are still fresh and that bringing perpetrators to justice must be an integral part of national healing and reconstruction.

The years of fighting between rival ethnic militias left scars that run deep along tribal lines even 10 years later. My hope is that the two arrests will empower more Liberian victims to raise their voices and demand institutional reform to the judicial system. Reactions to Kosiah’s arrest have been mixed. But judicial reform will be possible only if those who stood on the side of justice against Johnson support Kosiah’s arrest, regardless of his tribal affiliation. I come from Kosiah’s tribe, and I have received numerous death threats since his arrest from individuals who accuse me of letting down my own people. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that Kosiah needs to face justice for his alleged crimes.

The local reactions to the two arrests in Liberia clearly demonstrate the pressing need for national accountability. I hope that the renewed interest in ending impunity will also lead to changes in international development policy. Failure to institute accountability will continue to undermine Liberia’s long-term stability. The lack of impunity ensures continued mistrust of government officials, which has proved deadly.

Ultimately, we cannot cherry-pick justice. It must be pursued without favor for any political party or ethnic group. We have a long way to go, but Johnson and Kosiah’s arrests mark the first steps in the right direction.

Hassan Bility was a journalist and a victim of torture under former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and is the director of the Monrovia-based Global Justice and Research Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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