A war Crimes Tribunal In Liberia: Archbishop Francis and Chairman Bryant's positions

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 9, 2004

Fourteen years ago, as Liberia fell into the deepest abyss of her 150 years history, caught in a nightmare with actors named Prince Y. Johnson, Samuel k. Doe and Charles Taylor, a group of religious leaders, including Archbishop Michael Francis and Sheikh Kafumba Konneh among others, met and put together a peace formula to end the violence. Their recommendations called for setting up a transitional administration to be headed by none of the warring factions, disarmament of all combatants and the holding of free and fair elections under international supervision.

The peace formula put together by the Liberian religious leaders became known as the ECOWAS Peace Plan after the regional body adopted it. The cornerstones of that plan were peace and reconciliation. The religious leaders, who called themselves back then The Interfaith Mediation Committee, believed that once the gun became silent, Liberians would go through a process of reconciliation. This did not happen.

To many who sought power in Liberia in the past decade, guns became the ultimate tool. Charles Taylor and many others embarked on a killing spree to loot the country. As warlords multiplied, they traumatized Liberians and blackmailed the international community by imposing a deal: peace would only return if they were given political power. For years, as if in musical chairs, governments would come and go, with always the same actors pulling the strings. Warlords ensured that every peace accord that extended their power also contained an amnesty clause that protected them and guaranteed impunity.

The sight of the current warring factions coming to replace the Chief warlord has infuriated many Liberians. There is a general sentiment that unless all culprits who took part in the killing, raping and looting of the nation are made to pay for their acts, the spiral of violence would never end.

Michael Francis wants justice now

Even before the ink dried on the Comprehensive Peace Accords of Accra, many Liberians started to call for a war crimes tribunal. The call received momentum last week when Archbishop Michael Francis added his voice to the chorus. He said, according to reports from Monrovia that former warlords should not serve in the transitional government and has urged that they should answer for the atrocities they committed before a war crimes tribunal. He went on to add that "military commanders who played a prominent role in the country's 14 year civil war should be prevented from taking office in the executive, legislative and judiciary."

The Archbishop is echoing the cry for justice from many quarters of society. The anger against the leaders of ragtag armies riding in expensive cars and living large in a society they have destroyed is very palpable in Monrovia. Warlords feel it. Rarely does one see a member of government walking the streets of Monrovia, or even going shopping in the many supermarkets. They are either in their offices or riding behind tainted glasses in their SUV. They know, that somehow, sooner or later, the victims would have their day in court.

It is tempting to write that the call by the Archbishop is untimely, that he should have spoken out before the government was formed. Certainly, in June, had Liberians refused the entry of warlords in a transitional government, things could have turned different. If the Archbishop and other human rights activists had managed to convince the international community that the only exit for warlords and Charles Taylor was a war crimes tribunal, Liberia would have a different government today. But it happened that when the Accra conference was trying to sideline warring factions from taking high-level positions in the government, they intensified the attack on Monrovia, blackmailing everyone again into giving them what they wanted. But better late than never, Archbishop Francis entering the fray gives the war crimes issue the moral support it needed. The matter will remain an important aspect of Liberian politics for years to come. It would be the most important question all presidential aspirants will have to answer at the next elections.

Liberians can rest assured that the issue would not go away, with Archbishop Francis now involved.

Chairman Bryant's list of priorities does not include war crimes tribunal

On his end, Chairman Gyude Bryant has been calling for reconciliation and a few days after his selection in Accra, he said "a war crimes tribunal would do more harm then good in Liberia at this time." Again, last week, speaking to the French news agency, (AFP), he reiterated what he said many a times: the mandate of his government does not include organizing a war crimes tribunal.

Some political commentators have concluded that he is totally submitted to the warlords who hold important positions in the government. Others see it as an intention to shield members of the defunct regime. There is even another group that believes that he was selected to be Chairman because he would never go for a war crimes tribunal. These comments are fueled by the Chairman's many attempts to "explain" why war crimes would be good or not. It would be wiser for him to simply say that the matter is not part of his mandate and leave it at that. The more he tries to explain, the less credible he appears. There can be no peace in the absence of justice. There is no reconciliation in the absence of contrition.

The transitional government was formed on the premises of the peace plan put forth by the Interfaith Mediation Committee in 1990, when the nation was faced with total destruction: bring the warring parties together in a government. Bryant is the custodian of a fragile unity formed with people who, just a few months ago, were shooting at each other while killing thousands of innocent in the process. Bryant is like the firefighter hired to put off the fire. His job is neither that of the policeman who will arrest the pyromaniac nor that of the judge who would convict those who set the house ablaze. His job is to hold together this coalition and lead the nation top elections.

It is understandable that Bryant would commit political suicide by calling for a war crimes tribunal at this time. He has to work with everyone in his government. What happens after this government is dissolved in 2005 is another matter. LNTG is a government of compromise a fragile bridge to move the nation from war to peace. After it is dissolved in 2005, the new government, elected with a mandate from the people, can then decide on the issue of a war crimes tribunal.

Advocating for a war crimes tribunal is the right thing to do for a person like Archbishop Michael Francis and others of the religious community must join him in this new battle. It is also an obligation for human rights organizations in and outside of Liberia. The Liberian press must keep calling for it everyday until justice is rendered. Every Liberian must advocate and call for an instance that would put an end to the culture of political violence and impunity.

But in good faith, Bryant cannot be expected to be championing the setting for a war crimes tribunal that would certainly undermine the coalition he is trying to hold together until 2005. His effectiveness as Chairman must not be judged on this issue.

When the time comes for a war crimes tribunal, people would be brought to justice because they committed a crime, not because they belonged to a certain organization or had friends in those organizations. This will take lot of work and preparation, both for the victims and others. The fact that the UN has trained people to identify women and children victims of sexual crimes is the beginning of the war crimes tribunal. Somehow, sooner or later, those who armed and drugged children and unleashed them on innocent civilian population would have to answer for their crimes. And whatever Bryant says when the time comes, will have little effect of the course of history. Now he has a specific job to do, let him carry it on. He has other issues to deal with.