Sarah Gamble, Ela Matthews, and Nushin Sarkarati join JiC for this blog post on the ongoing fight for accountability for war crimes in Liberia. Sarah holds a J.D. from UC Davis School of Law and is a Legal Fellow at the Center for Justice and Accountability. Ela is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability where she works on building survivor-led accountability strategies for atrocity crimes through U.S. and international litigation and investigations. Nushin Sarkarati is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability, representing victims of atrocity crimes in pursuing justice through universal jurisdiction in the U.S. and before international bodies.
On July 29, 1990, Liberian government forces massacred 600 unarmed men, women, and children in a Red Cross shelter at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia. The Massacre occurred during the first of Liberia’s two bloody civil wars that left approximately 250,000 people dead and was one of the largest attacks against civilians in the history of the conflict. Despite widespread condemnation of the attack, and decades of survivor-led action calling for justice, the Liberian government has failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible.
Tired of waiting for government action, survivors of the Lutheran Church Massacre recently brought a case against the Liberian government before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice, a regional court with jurisdiction over allegations of human rights violations committed by member states. The survivors argue that Liberia’s failure to ensure accountability for civil war era crimes is a breach of its international human rights and humanitarian law obligations. This will be the first time that a court will examine Liberia’s failure to investigate human rights and humanitarian law violations committed during its civil wars. These efforts could have implications on broader movements for domestic accountability for international crimes in the region. This post discusses the lead up to this historic case and why this could be a turning point in the region and in the quest for justice in Liberia.
Accountability Developments and Delays in Liberia
In 2005, Liberia’s legislature established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate the human rights violations that occurred during Liberia’s civil wars. The TRC collected 20,000 statements and heard direct testimony from over 800 Liberians within the country and in the diaspora. Four years later, the TRC concluded in its final report that warring factions from all sides of the conflict were responsible for serious violations of international law, and that members of the government’s armed forces were responsible for the Massacre at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. The Commissioners recommended that Liberia establish a mixed international and domestic war-crimes court – the Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia – to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as certain domestic crimes, including economic crimes. However, despite calls from survivors, civil society, and even the UN Human Rights Committee, the Liberian government refused to implement the majority of the TRC’s recommendations and failed to implement the necessary legislation to hold perpetrators of atrocity crimes accountable.
The new administration under President George Weah brought a resurgence of hope that the TRC recommendations would finally be enacted because President Weah was not personally involved in the civil wars. Activists renewed their calls to the government to follow through on the TRC recommendations and Liberia’s bar association prepared a draft bill establishing a war crimes court.
This hope culminated on September 12, 2019, when President Weah requested the Liberian Legislature advise him on the process of implementing the TRC’s recommendations. Later that month, while speaking at the UN General Assembly, Weah reported that he was working with the Legislature to create a war crimes court. Despite these promising announcements, the President abruptly changed course. In October 2019, he stated: “why should we focus on the war crimes court now, when we did not focus on it twelve years ago?” Following this statement, the Speaker of the House of Representatives removed the creation of war-crimes court from House’s agenda.
Since then, efforts to implement the TRC’s recommendations have stalled. In July 2021, the Senate proposed the President establish a Transitional Justice Commission – an entity with no power to prosecute accused perpetrators – rather than a war-crimes court. This proposal was led in part by Senator Prince Johnson, who is implicated in serious crimesfrom Liberia’s conflict including the murder of former Liberian President Samuel Doe. Johnson is also subject to U.S. sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.
Additionally, the House of Representatives failed to restore the question of a war-crimes court to its agenda. Instead, despite the long standing TRC recommendation to establish such a court, the House called for an indefinite period of consultations to effectively reevaluate the recommendation.
Today, rather than moving forward and implementing the TRC recommendations, the Liberian government has moved backwards. There has been no justice or remedies for victims and their families, and the Liberian government has even failed to officially recognize that government forces participated in the Massacre.
Historic ECOWAS Filing
Despite this lack of progress, survivors and advocates have not been deterred in their quest for justice. Using the principle of universal jurisdiction, cases have been brought in the United States, Switzerland, and most recently in France with the trial and conviction of Kunti Kamara. Another case is pending in Belgium. While these cases provide critical pathways to justice for victims, with most of the accused perpetrators of atrocities living freely in Liberia, they are insufficient. In 2021, a United States court found Moses Thomas, a former colonel in the Armed Forces of Liberia, liable for extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. However, while the case was pending against him, Thomas fled to Liberia, believing Liberia was the safest place for him to escape justice, and continues to live there freely to this day.
The Liberian government has allowed war criminals to live with impunity in Liberia for far too long. Faced with Liberian inaction in the face of clear evidence of Thomas’s involvement in the attack along with government forces under his command, on October 4, 2022, Liberian NGO, the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), and three survivors of the Lutheran Church Massacre filed a complaint before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice.
As a member of ECOWAS, Liberia must answer to the court for its human rights violations, including its failure to investigate and prosecute violations of the right to life, and the right to freedom from torture and cruel and inhuman treatment. The complaint alleges that Liberia is violating its obligations under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions to investigate, and where appropriate, prosecute violations of these treaties. The complaint asks the ECOWAS court to compensate the victims of the Massacre and their families and to take steps to memorialize the attack, as well as apologize to the survivors. The survivors and GJRP are also asking the court to direct Liberia to fulfill its obligations to conduct a meaningful investigation of the Massacre and hold those responsible to account.
While it remains to be seen how the Liberian government will respond (the government’s response was technically due on November 4, but it requested a thirty day extension), this historic case demonstrates the ongoing commitment of survivors and civil society to establish a court in Liberia to hold perpetrators accountable for civil war era crimes.
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Pledges U.S. Financial and Technical Support for War Crimes Court in Liberia
Amidst the news of the court filing, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Dr. Beth Van Schaack, visited Liberia and announced that the U.S. government is willing to provide technical and financial support for a war crimes court in Liberia. In doing so, the Ambassador noted that there are no legal impediments to establishing a war-crimes tribunal in the country. The only true impediment is political will.
Justice is long overdue in Liberia. For decades, victims of civil war era atrocity crimes have been unwavering in their quest for justice and accountability. It is time the Liberian government answers their call.
GJRP and the Lutheran Church Massacre survivors are represented by the Center for Justice and Accountability, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and pro-bono counsel Debevoise and Plimpton. For more information on the Liberian Civil War and the ECOWAS case visit https://cja.org/what-we-do/litigation/jane-v-thomas/. For updates follow CJA on Facebook and Twitter and follow the Liberian Quest for Justice, on Facebook and Twitterthrough #Quest4Liberia.