A Continuum of Necessary Investments in Peace Building

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 19, 2007


Throughout the life of the country, Liberians have undergone severe human rights violations from past presidents, military personnel, warlords, and ordinary citizens alike in the recent and more distant past. Therefore, it is not surprising that some groups should be showing preference for a World Crimes Court (WCC) over a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In this sense, these two intimately connected interventions are constructed as competing or conflicting imperatives. However, our chances for peace building in the long-run do not just rest with these two alternatives. Sustainable peace building is also shaped by a host of other supplemental policy interventions geared toward promoting social cohesion.

Furthermore, both the WCC and TRC are so closely intertwined. We should therefore be seeking to expand our peace building continuum rather than introducing unnecessary tensions between them. Purely retributive justice processes WCC included; are inadequate to resolve the effects of ethnic animosities and suspicions that have veered into our institutional life, manifesting as sources of prejudice, bias and discrimination. Forward thinking policy makers try to make the most of their investments by ensuring that all of their policies: economic, social, national security, agricultural, and health are connected from one stage to the next – reducing the chances that disconnects would be exploited by predators, thus requiring costly remedial interventions. The same applies in the case of peace building. A continuum has to be built to prevent costly restorative and/or curative interventions that could have been employed right from the start.

Capsules of Social Justice Interventions
At the least, there are four interrelated interventions that constitute a robust continuum of social justice interventions. They form parts of my aspirations for reconstruction of our social fabric. Instead of creating policy responses that operate in separate silos, with different norms, and rules, different structures, and different expectations, I argue that we should think of peace building in ways that each component of the system reinforces the other.

We should be seeking to create a seamless peace building system from the get go of our national reconstruction. Our democracy is in its infancy, and that is the rightful place to start thinking about a peace building system. This will bolster our prospects for not repeating the negative tendencies and practices that are the underlying causes of internecine strife among many in Liberian society.

The first of these is referred to as retributive justice. Proponents, including myself, believe that comparable punishment should accompany crime. I differ with some when they insist that allocations should not be made for restoring certain criminals to society, especially after they have paid their debts to society. I am also aware that certain violations are so gruesome that reintegration is virtually impossible, and the courts have to mediate these challenges.

In this sense, I believe that the likes of Charles Taylor and his henchmen and women who made a debacle of governance and institutionalized anguish and grief in Liberia and other societies should face the full weight of the law. The remorseless and shameless inclination of Taylor supporters, who have seen it fit to pour salt in the wounds of their victims have hardened my resolve.

Can you imagine that Taylor’s supporters want to use the means of justice that they did not award their critics for their benefit now? They stripped Liberians of their basic rights and shackled their freedoms. In response, Liberians should not lose their sense of social responsibility by allowing John T. Richardson, Benoni Urey, and other Taylor cronies to go unpunished for their crimes. We must call their bluff. These potential co-conspirators of the regime that inflicted heaps of indignities on the Liberian people should also be the subjects of prosecution by the Sirleaf government. They have the right to speak since we want to build a democracy, but we have equal right to call for their prosecution through the courts.

Second, the pursuit of the truth and erecting public platforms like the TRC for victims to voice their wounds and for offenders to give an accounting of their wrongdoing is equally important. This, I believe, has the potential to extend dignity to victims and boost their self-esteem.

Third, it is important that the rule of law be applied in the present phase of our development to the fullest. No doubt that all Liberians have to seek to punish past offenders. Still, we must be inpatient with present offenses, and work intensely to prevent the recurrence of past crimes within the Sirleaf government and other governments to come. The legislature should also be a target of our “rights watch” as should the judiciary and local governments.

Fourth, I am interested in repairing the interethnic alienation so as to bring about healing and unification of Liberians, where it is appropriate; a subject that I have continued to write about given its immense importance to the transition from a collapse to a functioning state. The ultimate goal here is to foster tolerance, mutual acceptance, inclusion, reconciliation and sustained social development. I find the full complement of these social justice approaches critical to sustainable change in Liberia.

Next, I compare and contrast the TRC and WCC to suggest that both would make essential contributions to our quest for justice, reconciliation, and healing. I also discuss the fourth component of my aspiration in an effort to boost the peace building continuum, namely, a social development facet.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
TRC has a quasi judicial character but it would accomplish the following feats. At the core, it will provide victims a platform for catharsis and also help us develop historical record of the atrocities that were committed from Liberians living in the homeland and abroad. The latter characteristic, taking statements from Liberians abroad, is unique to the Liberian TRC from its predecessors in Sierra Leone, South Africa, Argentina, Peru, East Timor, Chile, Philippines, and Guatemala and other nations.

If the data gathering and analysis are not properly executed, we would not be able to glean comprehensive understanding of how and why we have allowed ethnic identity to usurp national identity. Such a limited understanding might also undermine our capacity to function as a cohesive national community. Where less serious crimes were committed though, I believe that TRC will serve as an arbiter of justice, stitching together social fabrics, cut asunder, and saving our precious prosecutorial resources for major crimes. And this is not to argue that one person’s pain is less than the other. But within the context of political conflict, certain crimes require severe punishment and others necessitate less acute reprimand.

We cannot invest all of our social reconstruction stocks in the TRC, especially since its role is limited in uncovering destructive social patterns that contributed to state collapse. TRC or transitional justice systems are still fraught with many challenges. TRC has the potential, dangerously so, if not administered carefully to embarrass or damage high-ranking officials, especially when used to carry out the dislikes or vendetta of certain power brokers in society. Equally so, possibility exists for the TRC to be used to vindicate perpetrators who have connections to the ruling elites or even cover-up for them. Such patterns can threaten the development of a democratic political culture.

War Crimes Court
Another step on our peace building continuum happens to be the establishment of a War Crimes Court (WCC). This is a product of our determination to bring political, military, rebel leaders, and ordinary citizens who caused unspeakable brutality in Liberia to justice. It is sad and shameful that some of the people who could be likely targets of the WCC are participating in the current administration and the legislature, administering the civic and legislative affairs of the nation. The other side of a democracy is that in some instances, it can deliver political actors that we least desire, perhaps the tyranny of the majority. This establishes the necessity for citizens to participate at all levels of governance to ensure a counterweight to those we consider anathema to our quest for democracy and lasting peace.

It would be hard to dispute that webs of personal and political connections exists between some in the current government and others from past governments, who are more than likely prime candidates for prosecution by a WCC. We are not surprised by the lack of enthusiasm among some in the Sirleaf administration to embrace the establishment of a WCC specifically for Liberia. For example, might Taylor’s prosecution in Liberia, reveal criminal links between him and others in the present government? Could this be the reason why John T. Richardson and others are emboldened to step up their campaign for justice on behalf of Taylor? Is it reasonable to assume that the slow pace at which the prosecution of other corrupt elements in Liberian society is moving indicates that some offenders who have political leverage, might bargain their way out of prosecution should a WCC be established? Just Thinking!

Even so, it is fair to note that the lack of ample evidentiary record to prosecute some perpetrators makes the TRC a rather invaluable resource. The conditions in Liberia will be favorable for war crimes after we cultivate the relevant historical record to prosecute offenders. There are some Liberians who feel that waiting a couple of years for the TRC to complete its work would erode memories of the crimes created in the distant past. This would work against members of certain populations (those who perpetrated their crimes recently) and for others (those who perpetrated their crimes in the earlier years of our development). This is a valid concern that policy makers must consider in their deliberations about how to proceed with peace building. Yet still, it should also be noted that our courts have very sparse capacity at present, and sufficient time may well need to lapse to adequately build up the strengths and competencies of our prosecutors and judges to enable stellar prosecution of offenders.

Expanding the Peace Building Continuum
The TRC and WCC do and would not offer the last word on justice and reconciliation. These interventions move us toward justice, healing, and reconciliation, but not completely. An identity-based conflict like the one that Liberians have experienced, cannot only be resolved by building historical record and/or assigning guilt and innocence.

The chain of ethnic hatred has gotten a strong hold of the soul of Liberia. Breaking the cycle of vengeance means that we reach beyond purely judicial social technologies and blend them with social development interventions. In order to fully renovate the shattered social landscape, we need to steer the rough terrains between letting go of the old practices that hinged solely on punishing offenders and supplementing them with new patterns that involve restoring perpetrators to society, while at the same time building economic infrastructure that can diffuse wealth and resources across the country.

Peace building requires a full menu of capacity building approaches. The ways our national assets and resources are distributed (accountability) are just as important as are the relationships and capacity that are built among our leaders, citizens, institutions, and organizations. Notably, among the threads that weave us together as a people, none is more durable than a process that allows us to triumph over ethnic division and to pledge allegiance to national identity. This has the power to level the playing field and rein in those bent on dividing us into shreds based on insular identities.

Premium has to therefore be placed on what I have come to call a “public engagement campaign.” This process is unlike a public awareness or information dissemination strategy already being undertaken by the government in one form or another. A public engagement campaign is not a news provision mechanism. It is a social development devise and strategy that is systematic in its approach at outreach to the citizens. Its goal is to persuade the public to “rebut adversarial propaganda” and hinge the collective psyche on a common purpose. In this case, the focus is on building social cohesion and turning away from the “divide and conquer” strategies that were employed before and during the war, and might still be employed by some today.

Those who carry out this campaign must have the “linguistic, cultural, and political” competencies that resonate with specific and targeted populations. This is not a program that government needs to advertise. The uniqueness of this approach is in weaving its components strategically with all of the government’s social development initiatives (micro-lending in destitute communities, attracting multilateral investments, investing in youth development initiatives, preventative conflict management initiates, etc) that effectively bridge people and communities.

I am not advocating for any sort of deception, as some might think, especially in a context where building credibility is essential to the Sirleaf government gaining legitimacy and leverage. I am suggesting that policymakers apply innovation and forethought in remedying the problems that we face.

For the continuum of peace building to be complete or have the fullest impact, all of government’s policies would have to be viewed as investments in making a seed change and building the foundation for supporting long-term reintegration of our society. Working at all levels of society for citizens and all stakeholders to build relationships and to work together effectively will be critical to peace building.

A test of long-term impact in our peace building strategy would be, if our leaders are able to stop bickering among themselves and start using their skills to make sure that all citizens’ perspectives are vital to nation building decision making. Making governance more inclusive not only in decision making, but also building capacity in local communities (often disenfranchised and disconnected from the mainstream), whereby local people can become “change agents” would extend the value of the peace building efforts.

The high level of distress that many Liberians feel and competition over scarce resources has engendered a dire need to make strategic choices about peace building. That is why I believe that our peace building vision has to also be linked intricately to our social development strategies. Distributive justice (equitable distribution of national resources) and improvements in the financial conditions of citizens as well as the tangible outcomes such as increased employment and reduced poverty and inequality are at the heart of peace building. Efforts that would help Liberians accumulate assets, especially in depressed communities would only stimulate and sustain the peace building continuum. A genuinely inclusive paradigm for change making can harness the healing and reconciliation capacity of the citizens. The economic benefits of making certain that strong peace building systems are erected that bridge socioeconomic divides are clear. If so, now is the time that we design and implement such an agent of change.

The TRC and WCC are together, helpful correctives for the ills of our society, but I do not feel that as standalones or even together just by themselves, they provide adequate answers to our longing for reconciliation and healing. If the TRC answers the yearnings of those Liberians that are optimistic about the nature of people to forgive and forget, the WCC is too pessimistic about the redemptive quality of humanity. Hence, I believe that somewhere between these two visions, we can erect alternative social structures that can sew up the social fabric together. An adequate vision of peace is found in the synergy of social justice and social development interventions, which together, empower people to transcend estrangement imposed by intolerance and hatred. The quest for democracy that professes concern for economic inequality and is not equally concerned about transcending intolerance or bigotry of any kind is simply a hollow venture. One of the most potent artillery that we have against the sense of alienation that people feel is an understanding and appreciation of the rich ethnic diversity that we have acquired as a nation state and people. I should add that it would be difficult to identify cause and effect relationships between judicial and social justice interventions and their peace building outcomes. But I am convinced based on experienced working within disadvantaged communities that somehow, links exist between these investments.

In the end, I am hopeful that the TRC and WCC will complete their appointed tasks. We will be able to accumulate ample amount of historical record from Liberians and others. In addition, not only will the decision of the TRC and the WCC, but their procedures and processes will also demonstrate impeccable efficiency and fairness. We will all grow from this by being mindful of how ethnic hatred and identity-based politics have tainted perspectives and made the solutions to our problems much more difficult, even insoluble in some instances. Eventually, evidence produced will be studied throughout prosperity and peace will rein in Liberia forever.

© 2007 by The Perspective
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