GJRP et al. v. Liberia, Q&A

Background on the Case

What is the claim against Liberia in this case?

The complaint alleges that because Liberia has not implemented the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations to investigate and prosecute the Lutheran Church Massacre, Liberia has breached its international legal obligations to investigate and prosecute violations of (1) the right to life, (2) the right to freedom from torture and cruel and inhuman treatment, and (3) international humanitarian law that occurred during the Lutheran Church Massacre.

We’re asking the ECOWAS Court to declare that Liberia is in violation of these rights, and to direct Liberia to remedy these violations by immediately conducting and official, effective, independent investigation into the Lutheran Church Massacre to identify those responsible and then prosecute them.

Q: Who are the “Plaintiffs” in this case?

We’re representing the Global Justice Research Center, a Liberia-based nongovernmental organization that documents and seeks justice for conflict-related crimes in Liberia.  GJRP has been campaigning for justice in Liberia for civil wars era atrocities like the Lutheran Church Massacre for over a decade. GJRP brings this case to advance the interests of justice and accountability for the nearly 2,000 survivors and victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre. CJA is also representing three survivors of the Massacre, siblings who lost their mother, brother, and 14 other family members when the Armed Forces of Liberia attacked the Lutheran Church on July 29, 1990. Read more about their experience in a declaration submitted to the ECOWAS Court of Justice.

Q: Who is the Defendant in this case?

This case was brought against the Republic of Liberia for its failure to ensure accountability and redress to the victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre.

Q: What is the Lutheran Church Massacre?

In December 1989, a civil war erupted between the government and the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), and rebel forces led by Charles Taylor. As Taylor’s forces approached the city, members of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups within Monrovia were systematically arrested and executed on suspicion of rebel activity. As a result, thousands of civilians, largely Manos and Gios, fled from their homes and sought shelter in places like St. Peter’s Lutheran Church that were protected by the Red Cross and other international organizations throughout the city.

On July 29, 1990, the Lutheran Church Massacre took place, one of the single largest massacres of civilians in Liberia’s history. A group of soldiers from AFL raided St. Peter’s, killing 600 men, women, and children with guns and machetes. Some of the survivors were forced to hide under dead bodies, while witnessing the slaughter of their loved ones. At the time of the attack, the church was providing shelter and humanitarian assistance to over 2,000 civilians. The shelter was well known and had been visited by AFL soldiers, international media, and the US Embassy in the days before the attack. That it was a church and humanitarian shelter was obvious—the compound was clearly marked by Red Cross flags on all four corners and the residents inside included many women and children.

Goals / Next Steps

Q: What are your goals?

Accountability in Liberia for the Lutheran Church Massacre and other civil wars era atrocities. Our clients have waited more than three decades to see accountability for this massacre. The Liberian Government has never officially recognized that government forces participated in the Massacre. We have already proved that Moses Thomas and members of the Government’s Special Anti-Terrorist Unit committed this senseless attack, now we want Liberia to follow through and bring the perpetrators to justice by establishing a war crimes court in Liberia.

CJA is also working with Liberian civil society to advocate for a war crimes court in Liberia, and for the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators in country. We are committed to continuing this work and supporting civil society in their effort to seek justice for wartime abuses and end ongoing impunity in Liberia.

Q: What will happen if the case is won?

The case is a complaint against the Republic of Liberia, seeking an order from the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice directing Liberia to investigate the violations that took place during the Lutheran Church Massacre and to prosecute those responsible. We also ask the Court to order Liberia to compensate the victims of the Massacre and their families, and to take steps to memorialize the attack and apologize to its survivors. If we win, that means the judges have determined that Liberia is breaching international human rights and humanitarian law and determined that our clients and the broader class of victims are entitled to reparations as a result.

Q: What happens if the court rules in favor of Liberia?

It will be up to our clients and their legal team what options are available, should that occur.

Details on the ECOWAS Case against Liberia

Q: Why was this case filed with the ECOWAS Court of Justice?

Justice for civil war atrocities is still not currently possible in Liberia. Despite recommendations by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of wartime atrocities, no laws were passed in Liberia and Liberia did not establish a special war crimes court that would allow the government to hold perpetrators of torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable. Liberia’s failure to ensure accountability for civil wars era atrocities is a breach of its international human rights and humanitarian law obligations.

Liberia is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) a regional body made up of 15 states in West Africa. In 1991, the ECOWAS countries created a court, which since 2005 has been able to hear cases relating to human rights violations committed by ECOWAS countries against their citizens. As a member of ECOWAS, Liberia must answer to the court for its human rights violations, which include failing to investigate and prosecute violations of the right to life, and the right to freedom from torture and cruel and inhuman treatment.

Q. Why are the perpetrators, including Col. Moses Thomas, not being prosecuted in Liberia or before an international war crimes court?

Unfortunately, Liberia has yet to establish a court or pass the laws necessary to prosecute individual perpetrators of atrocity crimes, such as the massacre at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church.

International tribunals such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) do have the power to indict individuals for war crimes and crimes against humanity, like those committed at the Lutheran Church. However, the ICC was established in 2002 and cannot look at violations that took place before that date. The Lutheran Church Massacre, which took place in 1990, is therefore not within the jurisdiction of the ICC and is currently not within the jurisdiction of any international criminal tribunal.

Liberia, with the support of the international community, could set up a special court to investigate and prosecute civil war era atrocities. Liberia has a duty to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute these atrocities under international law. And, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that Liberia create an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal for Liberia—an internationalized-hybrid tribunal with the power to prosecute perpetrators of serious violations of international law and gross human rights abuses as well as domestic crimes. To date, however, Liberia has lacked the political will to actually create this court. This is why CJA has filed this case before the ECOWAS Court and is working with Liberian civil society to push for its establishment.

Q. Why the Lutheran Church Massacre, and not other civil wars era atrocities?

A global effort is now taking place to hold Liberian war criminals accountable, wherever they are found. Cases are advancing against alleged Liberian war criminals residing in Europe and the U.S. This case follows our successful civil suit  against Moses Thomas in the United States, where we proved that he was responsible for leading a group of soldiers from the Armed Forces of Liberia in the attack. Moses Thomas fled back to Liberia in 2019, and despite the overwhelming evidence of his crimes, he’s living there freely. Because Moses Thomas is on Liberian soil, we are trying to get the Liberian government to follow through on its obligations to ensure Thomas is brought to justice.

The cases on the Lutheran Church Massacre also follow the successful 2009 U.S. prosecution of Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, Charles Taylor’s son, for torture and the successful 2017 conviction of former ULIMO rebel commander, Mohammed Jabbateh or “Jungle Jabbah” for immigration fraud and perjury related to his wartime atrocities, and the 2018 conviction of NPFL co-founder Thomas Woewiyu for immigration and citizenship fraud related to his wartime atrocities. There are also ongoing cases in Europe: in 2021, ULIMO Commander Alieu Kosiah was tried in Switzerlandand , RUF Commander Gibril Massaquoi was tried Finland, and there are ongoing investigations into NPFL Commander Martina Johnson in Belgium,  ULIMO Commander Kunti K in France, and LURD Commander Jankuba Fofana was arrested and released pending further investigation in the United Kingdom.

Q: How did this case come about?

In 2012, CJA opened an investigation into several key violations of international law committed during Liberia’s civil war, including the Lutheran Church massacre. Although the U.S. Embassy and human rights organizations had issued reports condemning Samuel Doe’s government forces for perpetrating the massacre in 1990, no one had ever been prosecuted or sanctioned for this atrocity.

Investigations like these require meticulous research, consultation with experts, and interviews with victims and other witnesses, which we conducted both in the United States and abroad.  Many of the victims and witnesses we met had lived in fear of coming forward about their experience. Very often we were the first people ever to hear their stories. With the support of our extraordinary partners the Global Justice and Research Project in Liberia and Civitas Maxima in Geneva, we were fortunate to meet with a substantial number of victims and witnesses during each of our missions to Liberia. We interviewed survivors of the attack, as well as Red Cross workers, religious leaders, journalists, even former soldiers, and we collected a number of documents, including newspaper reports and documents declassified by the United States. We carefully analyzed the evidence we collected, and we believed we had strong evidence implicating Moses Thomas in the attack. CJA and our co-counsel Debevoise & Plimpton LLP filed a suit against Moses Thomas in the U.S. in 2018.

In September 2021, the U.S. Court found that Moses Thomas had commanded and led the Lutheran Church Massacre and that Liberia had failed to provide the survivors and victims of the attack with any avenues for redress. Now, with help from our West Africa counsel at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) and Debevoise, we’re taking the case to a regional human rights court in west Africa – the Economic Community of West African States Community Court of Justice – to get Liberia to follow through on its international obligations to investigate the massacre and prosecute those responsible.

Background on CJA + More Information

Q: Who is CJA?

CJA is a San Francisco-based human rights non-governmental organization dedicated to deterring torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress. CJA uses litigation to hold perpetrators individually accountable for human rights abuses, develop human rights law, and advance the rule of law in countries transitioning from periods of abuse. Our organization was founded by a health care professional who discovered that one of his clients, a refugee from Bosnia, was experiencing retraumatization after discovering that one of his torturers was also living in the US. Our founder worked with attorneys to see how best to seek justice.

Q: Where can the public find more information about the case?

We have background materials on the Liberian Civil War and this case in particular on our website here. Updates on this case and ongoing litigation will also be available through an online campaign maintained by Civitas Maxima called the Liberian Quest for Justice, available on Facebook and Twitter through #Quest4Liberia.

Q. Are there any actions we can tell people to do?

Follow CJA and #Quest4Liberia to get updates on this cases and future efforts to end impunity for Liberian war crimes.