The TRC is In America: Liberians Must Seize
a Historic Moment!
By: Ahmed K. Sirleaf
Mirroring the TRC’s work in Liberia, Minnesota Advocates is coordinating an effort to take thousands of statements or testimonies from Liberians, and other Africans impacted by the Liberian crises between January 1979 and August 2003; living in the United States. Mainly lawyer and paralegal volunteers will conduct interviews with Liberians in the U.S. who voluntarily come forward to give statements to the TRC. Most statements will primarily be taken at statement taking sites, where individuals will have access to mental health counselors, immigration lawyers, and social service referrals.
Information gathered from these interviews will be forwarded to the TRC in Liberia to be included in the overall TRC records to form part of the accurate historical record the Commission is mandated to establish. Ideally, on the basis of these statements or testimonies collected, Minnesota Advocates hopes to conduct public hearings both here in the United States and in Liberia. These public hearings would give individuals, who would willingly agree to participate, an opportunity to interact and share their experiences in the crises.
Following its inauguration by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in February last year, the TRC was launched in all 15 counties in Liberia on June 22, 2006. In collaboration with Minnesota Advocates, the TRC’s U.S. Based Project was simultaneously launched in Minnesota, USA, on the same day as in Liberia. Since this U.S. launch in June, Minnesota Advocates has recruited and trained some 200 volunteers, and is still garnering local and national supports for the Diaspora implementation of the project. Volunteers have received training in various project appropriate and sensitive subject matters including: Liberian history; history of the Liberian crises; avoiding vicarious or secondary traumatization, Liberian culture and working with Liberians, etc.
In addition to the recruitment and training of volunteer professionals, Minnesota Advocates is working with a TRC National Advisory Committee; made up of Liberian community leaders across the United States. This committee advises Minnesota Advocates on myriad of issues including cultural sensibility matters and strategic outreach and implementation plans. Nonetheless, it suffices to say the project has continued to enjoy the assistances and collaborations of numerous Liberian community organizations. For example, the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), and the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM) have offered and rendered their continued supports to the project. The project is currently doing outreach consultations with various other community support groups and organizations such as various county, youth, women’s, and alumni associations in Minnesota and across the country. Furthermore, it has sought and received the support of various religious leaders; Liberian churches, mosques, and similar institutions and authorities in the United States.
The project is designed to give Liberian refugees in the U.S. a role in promoting international justice and human rights as part of the truth, justice, accountability, and reconciliation processes in Liberia. The project will also raise awareness of transitional justice mechanisms and the Liberian process here in the United States.
To ensure that the project is successful and that is appropriately designed to meet the needs of Liberians in the United States; Minnesota Advocates piloted the statement taking process in Minnesota in December, and as a result of the success of this pilot work, it has now launched a full-scale statement taking campaign in Minnesota and Chicago. When the model has fully been established in Minnesota and Chicago, the project will expand to other U.S. cities with large Liberian populations.
To engender increased and adequate access to the TRC work here in the U.S., and with the support of Faegre & Benson, LLP, a local corporate law firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota Advocates has established a phone line for Liberians to call and make an appointment to give their statements to the Commission. Liberians and other West Africans who were affected by the conflicts may call 612-766-7788 or 1-800-799-3688 to schedule an appointment.
Generally, Liberians have responded to the TRC’s Diaspora work very well. The reception in the Minnesota Liberian community in particular has been positive. As the project expands to other cities, soon, it is important for Liberians in the United States to seize the historic moment. The historic moment is that the Liberia TRC model to include Liberians in the Diaspora is groundbreaking, thus, it is imperative for us to come forward willingly to talk about what we know about the roots causes of the various episodes of the Liberian crises. Whether you think that there are fundamental historic fallacies that assumed the status of historical accuracy overtime, corruption or marginalization, or tribal hatreds, the TRC wants to hear from you.
The TRC is also interested in knowing about what may have happened to you or your family or neighbors during the rebel wars. These things that may have happened to you may have been violations of your rights as a human being. They may have been violations of war crimes or international humanitarian standards. The Commission wants to know about these violations that happened to you or to your family.
Finally the Commission wants to know if you have any recommendations about the direction in which you would like to see the country moving. What kind of systematic reforms do you envision for the new Liberia? The Commission wants to know whether you support recommendations for amnesty where allowable or if you are most interested in prosecutions in particular cases or of particular individuals or groups of individuals.
Some Liberians are interested only in seeing their fellow Liberians renewing trusts, confidence and respect in each other and/or in the system, again—in other words, these Liberians are most interested in reconciliation only. Whatever your particular interest in the TRC process may be, the Commission wants to know about it. The Commission will not know what you are thinking if you do not summon the courage to come forward to talk to the Commission’s representative here, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.
This is a historic and groundbreaking project that deserves a befitting recognition. It needs our attention and our enthusiasms for participation, as it is the only beginning that satisfies our divergence of interests in the reconstruction of Liberia. No other truth commission has ever included its refugee Diaspora populations in America in its proceedings. This means then that if the Liberia TRC does it well and is successful in implementing this model then it would make Liberia a leader in developing this new Transitional Justice model for others to emulate.
It is important to underscore the point that Liberia is not the only country to be trying the truth commission model for its post-conflict healing and reconciliation needs. Nearly all continents of the world, including North America have deployed a truth commission or an analogous body for social healing and moving forward from chaos to a more democratic shared future for all.
Since the Nuremberg tribunals after World War II, there has been a proliferation of tribunals and truth commissions with various nomenclatures. In Africa for example, we have had commissions and tribunals from Ethiopia (1992) to Rwanda (1994), Uganda (1986), South Africa (1994), and Sierra Leone (1999), and now in Liberia. The list continues, even still, from Bolivia, Argentina, El Salvador and Haiti to Chile-just mentioning a few on a long list. All of these post conflict areas have set up some forms of a truth commission with different kinds of mandates.
Of these mechanisms, a common trend is to be seen in the complementarity between prosecution and reconciliation. Moreover, this common trend does not imply that those countries that have tried transitional justice strategies have done so with the choice between either a truth commission or war crimes court, for example. It does not mean that it is either one or the other. One Transitional Justice strategy could lead to several others. For example, the Liberia TRC could possibly end up recommending prosecutions or reparations in particular cases.
Whereas, on the other hand it could recommend amnesties in other cases, provided those cases do not constitute the violations of serious international humanitarian or human rights standards. For instance, it cannot recommend amnesty if the perpetrator is said to have committed genocide or serious war crimes. Invariably, the TRC can only make recommendations to the Government of Liberia for its consideration and/or implementation. It is up to us, Liberians, to suggest the best recommendations to the TRC by coming forward to tell the Commission what want it to recommend. In the end, it is also up to us, and the International Community, to ensure the practicable and appropriate recommendations made are fully implemented to effect change in Liberia.
In sum, the Commission is here for all and every Liberians. Minnesota Advocates is implementing the TRC’s U.S project on a voluntary basis. Neither the Liberian Government nor the TRC is paying the international human rights organization to this do this work. Minnesota Advocates has done similar work in other countries in the past. It worked with the Sierra Leonean TRC and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The organization has done transitional justice and human rights works in Peru and in other South American countries as well. Thus, it comes to the TRC work with lots of international human rights work experience and benevolence.
These 200 plus volunteers are putting in some $ 2.5 million staff time into this work, unpaid. Nobody is paying them this money! Why don’t we embrace their generosity and goodwill, and show our gratitude by fully supporting the process? Let us come forward to give our statements to the TRC in honor of our lost loved ones. For the sakes of the memories of families and friends we lost in all these conflicts in Liberia over the years, if not for the sake of our common patrimony—Liberia. Let’s seize a historic moment and heal Liberia.