And Finally the TRC Report: What's in it for the Rest of us?

By: Tibelrosa Summoh Tarponweh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 31, 2009


With so many innocent lives lost and others ruined, where could those responsible for the mayhem and atrocities seek protective shield other than the pillows of harmony and reconciliation? After causing so much pain and suffering in a fourteen year Liberian homicidal debacle, perpetrators dared not pass up an opportunity for peace and reconciliation under the watchful eyes of the international community.

It seems to be the logic which handed Liberians the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). And why not, the South Africans, at the behest of Americans and Europeans put in place similar policy to pacify the black majority after decades of systematic oppression and domination by the white minority.

But a conformist attitude to just imitate the South African model of handling wrong and crimes missed two key points. The South African truth and reconciliation strategy was unique to that country and could not be replicated in any other country - more so in Liberia. And, the premise of reconciliation almost always favors the aggressors or perpetrators, for they are the ones everyone is told to forgive and move on with caveats of unenforceable sweeteners for victims. The TRC recently released the final and edited version of its report. I am grateful the public spectacle and national nightmare is over. It is refreshing to recognize there will be no more platforms for offenders to hear fake confessions and false apologies. I don’t know about you; I had enough of the mea culpa.

During fourteen long years of criminal imposition, our international partners led by the United States, uncharacteristically settled for a warlord appeasement plan. The Liberian TRC is a classic case of an ill-conceived public policy. Rather than exclude and send off self-admitted murderers to The Hague, Netherlands or any other desirable jurisdiction for war crimes trial, they were allowed to be part of a peace process, equivalent to signing their clemency orders. Yet millions were spent as the easy way out to support a toothless administrative commission simply to delay and deny justice - as if Liberians et al did not already know who the principal actors were.

The TRC was established as a result of a peace agreement fashioned in Accra, Ghana in 2003, to end the Liberian civil war. While there is no statute of limitation for murders in most, if not all jurisprudence jurisdictions, memories do fade and victims become complacent with the passage of time. Consequently, a nation’s psychic is foisted more towards political divide, than the criminal propensity of squabbles. And as punitive actions are delayed - nostalgic seeps into victims’ consciousness and thus retreat to a Stockholm syndrome – a psychological response in which victims/hostages show signs of loyalty to their abusers. What may well have easily countered such outlook conversely would be to introduce an internationally backed prosecuting authority with little or no Liberian control. A healing or reconciliation assemblies could then follow or run simultaneous with the assurance that at least impunity will not be tolerable.

Even as I’m not qualified to speak for Liberians, it is probably so that most are grateful to the United States for its humanitarian and massive financial support during the times starting from the West African Intervention Force in the early 1990s and up to the present.

This writer refuses to join the chorus that faults America on account of imaginations and for what Liberians heartlessly do to themselves. Liberians and other Africans must take full responsibilities for what they do to themselves, their peoples and countries. But here comes the puzzle: The fact that our supportive American friends did not veto what amounted to the protection of criminals at the gathering in Accra, Ghana, leaves logic wanting. Our friends, no doubt, care about law, order and justice as a basis for enduring peace. If they truly do, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, why did they not utilize their legitimate and coercive powers instead of throwing their weight behind the improbable mission of the TRC? Well, it appears lots of stock was put into a social experiment whose outcome is on life-support at the moment either due to miscalculation or political and legal constraints. It was indeed the beginning of failure to ensure justice and true peace in Liberia.

Abdicating important issues of answerability for horrific crimes to TRC recommendations was and still not a practical policy prescription, regardless of what the fine prints impress upon us. Apart from putting together a multi-million dollar two hundred plus page nicely written research document, the TRC cannot and must not assume the powers of the constitution. Additionally, giving up justifiable powers for war crimes prosecution to Liberians and their future fragile government with all of the noticeable inherited problems, was also as good as empowering defendants to be judges. In other words, as long as many of us, and paradoxically, the international community look to Liberians to ensure justice for unspeakable transgressions, it is not an illusion to say there might be no justice in spite of compelling reasons for it. And it is only a matter of time for this hypothesis to play itself out.

Simply put, Liberians do not have the political will nor should they be trusted to perform such a task. As much as any accountability tribunal would focus principally on the leaders of the defunct criminal factions, no one can underestimate the deeply entrenched sightless loyalties and other affinities which could transform any trial into a complex notion that heroes – who may have protected and avenged tribal or other interests against gross injustices, were being prosecuted. In case we forget, Charles Taylor’s trial was transferred to the Netherlands for fear of destabilizing Liberia and the entire sub-region.

An obvious example was the election of warlords as law makers much to dismay of other conscientious Liberians. Call it strange! It is indeed weird, however, it is the reality of people in counties and districts who are also stakeholders of the Liberian political structure, and whose decisions no matter how oddly perceived, must be accepted. Another illustration is the controversy of the make up of the TRC. There are those who believe that because of ideological and other attractions of some members of the Commission, favorable treatments were given to alleged principal agitators while others were targeted. True or untrue, pronouncements via press conferences and interviews during the course of its work, gave credence to these allegations.

A case in point, in interview published by FrontpageAfrica web magazine on 5/28/08, TRC Commissioner John Stewart accused fellow Commissioner Peal Brown-Bull of divulging confidential information of the commission to the Executive branch of government; and accused President Sirleaf of influence peddling, obstruction and interference, as well as being unhappy about allegations against popular Liberian musician, Sundaygar Dearboy, among other allegations. In spite of where one stands politically, speculative and prejudicial statements deriving from a supposedly impartial investigator against a sitting President or any citizen for that matter, left little doubt that the commission’s findings and recommendations would be unhelpful to the President.

Commissioner Stewart’s comments were not only unethical; it was out of control to say it bluntly. And the fallout certainly held back peoples’ confidence, hence dismissing the TRC as nothing more than a taxpayers’ funded political interest group more concerned with disabling political opponents in future elections than the integrity of an essential investigative process. It was revealed in its report recommending the disqualification of Liberians from holding public offices - as if the constitution does not exist in 2009 and beyond. Commissioner Stewart’s accusatory statements did not help the pursuit of the truth process. His comments as a fact finder did not enhance justice as soon as he made public names of specific witnesses and alleged perpetrators who were to appear before his commission - without the basic awareness that pre-hearing publicity could be harmful to an accused. And more notably, his public statements were not supported by any facts or evidence.

On the subject of the critical issue of America’s facilitation of the peace process and its sphere of influence over Liberia, whereas, peace is often used as an excuse to pamper criminality, the United States dropped the ball by not exerting its area of influence over Liberia as the British did to help end the carnage in Sierra Leone. The British government under the leadership of Tony Blair led and secured an internationally backed war crimes tribunal to prosecute those who rain havoc on innocent Sierra Loneans; and those found guilty are currently languishing in prison.

Also, Charles Taylor did not surrender power because he loved Liberia to spare it from further bloodbath in 2003, or that he did due to the exclusive persuasions of Obasanjo and Mbeki of Nigeria and South Africa respectively; he left because former U.S. President George W. Bush insisted on his departure. The same can be said that Taylor would perhaps still be in Calabar, Nigeria, were it not for the influence of the U.S. to have him arrested and turned over to the court for trial.

With all that the U. S. has done and can do, one would suppose its policy position would have been to apply its influence over the United Nations to prepare and enforce indictments for other accused murderers and human rights abusers so that they could have their days in court just as Taylor is. Instead, the Americans and others may have theorized that Taylor’s prosecution was sufficient to provide the basis for lasting peace; and in so doing, used his involvement in a complicated foreign civil war as rationale to put him on trial.

Let me quickly dismiss any notion that there are crocodile tears here for Taylor. The fact that he is on trial for crimes allegedly committed against the people of Sierra Lone, does not make him any less indictable and responsible for offenses he carried out against Liberians - even if Liberians do not have the guts to make him pay for his misdeeds. Though, it would be even more gratifying were he to be charged for crimes committed in Liberia. That said justice can be accomplished through different appearances. There are `instances of prosecutors’ brilliance to hold individuals liable on technicalities when it is clear victims of crimes – in this case Liberians – are afraid or unwilling to aid trial.

Notwithstanding, public policy must always, despite its imperfection, strive towards the maximum public good. The policies that rightly pursue Taylor - how be it creatively - yet turned a blind eye towards his well-known co-conspirators - are riddled with mistaken assumptions - and have left Liberians in a very problematic position, especially with the arrival of the TRC report. The TRC, as an instrument of justice and peace is a fairy tale. It was assigned a conventional although impossible task. Most of its audience is resigned to the status quo. And please don’t fault them since the perpetrators were sheltered nearly six years ago.

It can only be anticipated that the U.S., through its Ambassador, will continue to visit with celebrity warlords turned lawmakers as she now and then does to counsel them from spewing out threatening statements in furtherance of its appeasement policy. I surely hope those who eagerly participated in the distribution of war spoils must have the courage to say the TRC was and still is a misguided public policy - so that Liberians may well move on with their lives which by the way they have begun to do in so many ways.

Happy holidays!

© 2009 by The Perspective

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