Between 1989 and 2003, civil war consumed the small West African nation of Liberia, resulting in the estimated deaths of 150,000 to 250,000 men, women and children, and the displacement of over half the country’s population. All parties to the conflict were responsible for grave crimes and human rights atrocities, including torture, rape, sexual slavery, summary executions, and forced conscription of child soldiers. Since 2003, Liberia has made significant progress in areas such as infrastructure development and security, yet major obstacles remain to long-term growth and sustainable peace, not least an enduring culture of impunity for civil war era atrocities.
Origins: American Colonization and Discrimination (1822-1989)
In 1817, a group of American citizens established Liberia as a colony for emancipated American slaves, and helped relocate approximately 12,000 people to West Africa. In 1847, the colony declared its independence and ratified a constitution guaranteeing individual rights, and making Liberia the oldest democracy in Africa.
The country’s new legal system favored the rights of those recently arrived from America over those of the indigenous tribes. This led to tensions, which finally came to a head a century later during the Rice Riot of 1979 when President William R. Tolbert Jr. allegedly ordered police to fire on peaceful protesters, killing hundreds. In the turmoil that followed, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe and Sergeant Thomas Quiwonkpa staged a military coup and assassinated President Tolbert in 1980.
In 1985 Master Sergeant Doe became president in an election that was widely seen as rigged, but which was endorsed by the U.S. government. In 1986 he implemented a new constitution that attempted to remedy Liberia’s legalized discrimination against indigenous populations, yet inequalities persisted. Doe also purged the government of members from specific tribes and carried out brutal campaigns against suspected political opponents. These policies helped trigger the conflict that would soon ravage the country for 14 years.
Civil War: Part I (1989-1997)
What became known as the First Civil War began on December 24, 1989, when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL)—led by Charles Taylor —launched an assault on Doe’s forces. By early 1990, tens of thousands of Liberians had fled the country and thousands of civilians and combatants were raped, tortured or killed, as government and rebel forces engaged in extended warfare.
At the same time, new rebel factions were emerging and on September 9, 1990, President Samuel Doe was killed by Prince Y. Johnson, leader of a breakaway faction of Taylor’s NPFL. Following Doe’s death, a National Transitional Government assumed nominal control, but in spite of peacekeeping efforts, the fighting—which included summary executions, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and the targeting of protected persons and areas—did not abate until 1997 when Charles Taylor was elected as Liberia’s new president.
Civil War: Part II (1997-2003)
From 1997 to 2003, the Taylor regime oversaw the further disintegration of the Liberian state and its social order. By 1999, a new rebel movement formed by Liberian exiles in West Africa, the United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), began attacking government forces, plunging Liberia back into a full-blown civil war. By 2003, another armed group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), emerged in an effort to unseat Taylor from power. Human casualties continued to rise and by the summer of 2003, Taylor’s government controlled less than a third of the country. Mounting pressure from the international community, including the United States, finally led Charles Taylor to flee Liberia and seek refuge in Nigeria.
On August 18, 2003, Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, bringing an end to the 14-year conflict in which some sources estimate 250,000 people had lost their lives. The gross human rights violations committed during the conflicts include: massive killing of civilians, torture, widespread rape and sexual violence, forcible recruitment of children as soldiers, extortion, looting of the national economy, and the destruction of cultural property.
In 2006, Taylor was extradited to the Hague to face prosecution before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The former head of state was convicted of 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, committed over the course of Sierra Leone’s civil war. Taylor is now serving a 50-year sentence, and has never been tried for his alleged crimes in Liberia.
An Attempt at Justice: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2003)
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) created a framework for a transitional government; called for political and economic reforms; and set out procedures for demobilization. The National Transitional Government of Liberia was inaugurated on October 14, 2003, under a power sharing agreement that included members of different fighting factions.
The signatories to the CPA called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and envisioned that the TRC would provide a “forum that [would] address issues of impunity, as well as [provide] an opportunity for both victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to share their experiences, in order to get a clear picture of the past to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation.”
The CPA tasked the TRC with addressing “the root causes of the crises in Liberia, including human rights violations,” and to recommend means to rehabilitate victims of human rights violations. In 2006, the TRC took on the monumental task of identifying atrocities committed in Liberia from 1979 to 2003, and ultimately collected close to 20,000 victim and witness statements from within Liberia and the Diaspora.
In 2009, the TRC submitted a final report that identified serious violations of international law and human rights abuses committed by all sides of the armed conflict. To address these crimes, the TRC recommended the establishment of an Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia, an internationalized domestic criminal court with the power to prosecute alleged perpetrators of atrocity crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and gross violations of human rights, as well as a limited number of domestic and economic crimes.
Despite the potential of the TRC and the goals for ending impunity for civil war era crimes, Liberia has since done little to implement the body’s recommendations, many of which relate to prosecutions, sanctions, an alternative justice mechanism, reparations, and memorialization. Although the lack of prosecutions can in part be attributed to the state of Liberia’s legal system, some commentators also point to a lack of political will. Others, including former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, have expressed concern that implementing the TRC’s recommendations for prosecutions would create instability in Liberia, and should be ignored in the interest of peace. Presently, no international criminal tribunal has jurisdiction over Liberia’s wartime atrocities, and a limited number of cases have moved forward through foreign national courts, under the laws of universal jurisdiction.
Denying Safe Haven to Fugitive War Criminals
Meanwhile, outside of Liberia, there have been several cases to hold accountable perpetrators of – and accessories to – war crimes during the Liberian conflict and many more expected in 2018. Here are three cases which were litigated to judgement.
- In 2006, Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr., Charles Taylor’s son and the former head of Liberia’s Anti-Terrorist Unit, was arrested in Miami, Florida for attempting to enter the United States with a falsified passport. In pursuit of filing a civil suit, CJA began investigating in 2006 and represented an individual who was personally tortured by Taylor Jr. CJA later went on to support the U.S. federal government’s efforts to prosecute him under the U.S. extraterritorial torture statute, which makes it a crime for a U.S. citizen, or an individual present in the U.S., to participate in torture abroad, regardless of the nationality of the the victim. For his role in torture committed during Liberia’s civil war, Taylor Jr. was convicted and sentenced to 97-years in prison, a term he is currently serving in in Florida.
- In April 2017, a Dutch appeals court sentenced Guus Van Kouwenhoven to 19 years in prison for serving as an accessory to war crimes during the conflict when he used his timber business as a cover to smuggle weapons into Liberia on behalf of Charles Taylor.
- In 2017, Mohammed Jabbateh (often referred to by his nom de guerre “Jungle Jabbah”), a former rebel commander of the ULIMO forces who migrated to the United States in the late 1990s, was convicted in a U.S. court in Pennsylvania for immigration crimes related to perjury and failing to disclose his alleged war crimes in Liberia—including murder and conscripting child soldiers—when he applied for asylum.
For up-to-date developments in the fight for accountability in Liberia, follow Quest for Liberia on Facebook and Twitter, or go to Civitas Maxima.
Read more on CJA’s work in the Chucky Taylor case