War crimes tribunal is the only appropriate forum for accountability


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 9, 2003


With the megalomania Charles Taylor out of the way and exiled to Calabar, Nigeria, and the willingness to stop the killing by the groups of drug-stoned thugs that had terrorized the Liberian people over the years, perhaps there will finally be durable peace in Liberia. But lest we forget that we had been through this path of well-crafted peace agreements before, with their lavish dispensation of perks to each group of psychopaths who ardently subscribes to the doctrine of nihilism only to repeatedly find ourselves become victims of their insatiable greed.

For many years we saw several peace agreements, some of which were encapsulated in fine legalese, with specified responsibilities to be fulfilled by the signatories and, by some extension, raised false hope among the Liberian people. But each time, some self-centered warlord displeased with the prospects of losing his power to loot quickly reconstituted his ragtag goons to renew their prey upon the Liberian people.

With this experience as a backdrop, it’s understandable why many Liberians -including some of the most ardent peace advocates - are not too eager to embrace the latest political arrangement in the Liberian saga. Even though we welcome the end of violence, we are not convinced that the champions of force will not resort to their old tactic.

Except we take serious steps, which are commensurate with the kind of suffering that was imposed upon our people that were not addressed in the peace deal, justice would undoubtedly be denied, and real and durable peace would remain elusive.

Understandably, totalistic rebel benefactors, seeking their own selfish interest to avoid penalty for their criminal actions in Liberia, insistently demanded and got reprieve from ECOWAS facilitators as a price for ending the war. From their vantage point it was total amnesty or they would continue killing unarmed civilians as both sides had done throughout the conflict. But it did not have to be that way. We as a society have a duty that encompasses the greater good for our country. And that moral obligation requires us to look at the bigger picture by viewing national issues from a broader perspective. Only by so doing can we determine what’s in the national interest and advance appropriate Liberian solutions as opposed to parochial interests advocated by the predatory armed factions.

Indeed it would be scandalous to accept the prevailing sentiment coming from certain quarters of Liberian society that we should sweep the whole painful national experience off the radar screen and pretend that nothing had happened. Naturally, proponents of this idea are people with vested interest in keeping the lid on war crimes probes. The only rational conclusion that could be reached by this argument is that such supporters were directly involved in committing atrocities against our people, or provided some support that enabled the perpetrators in carrying out their heinous acts. Brazenly, these predators are now making themselves visible for the spoils of war.

Knowing the hell the ravening hordes just put our people through and the subsequent traumas that will affect the population for years to come, it’s rather unsettling that some politicians are toying with the idea of general amnesty.

But as history of the Liberian conflict shows, mere reconciliation including a general amnesty without a strong deterrent mechanism has not worked in Liberia. On the contrary, it has been disastrous. The Cotonou Peace Agreement gave blanket amnesty to the armed aggressors. But that did not stop them from waging war against the population.

In fact, an alternative argument can be made that amnesty has contributed to the cycle of violence in Liberia. Impunity from responsibility is controlling factor in our unending killing orgies. And it’s time to end that practice of giving in to the killers and begin to put premium on human life.

Most people who suffered the kind of deliberate, indiscriminant violence would opt for tangible redress by making sure the criminals are not ever allowed to get away without proper punishment. Not only is it the right thing to do; it’s only moral thing Liberians must do.

And if Liberia is to ever stem the tidal waves of violence, arrest the pervasive culture of contempt for human life and return the country to normalcy, then justice must be served, not only as a punitive measure but also as a deterrent. We have to send a strong message to would-be rebel bandits that acts of terrorism will not go unpunished. In that respect, we urge all politicians and others to refrain from making pronouncements until the public has had an opportunity to debate this important issue.

The Perspective believes it would be imprudent for politicians to stake out their positions now on the issue of war crimes and impunity until at such time when it’s appropriate for political campaigning. At the moment, the interim government has a narrow, clearly defined mandate to stabilize the country and it should be allowed to focus on those needs rather than be distracted by controversial long-term issues.

No doubt, we are determined to bring all those who took part in the different cabals, whether it was Taylor’s criminal enterprise or Ahaji Kromah/Tarty Teh’s insurgency coalition, each principal in the carnage in Liberia must account for his role before a panel of competent jurisdiction. But timing is important, and now is not the right time for that. Liberians must prioritize the national agenda.

We see some disturbing and striking parallels between this peace agreement and other peace accords before it. Like prior accords, the key players in this pact are almost the same characters but under different armed banners that signed those past agreements but failed to honor their terms. And like in past agreements, all the aggressors are handsomely rewarded with ministerial portfolios by which they will profit more from waging war against our people.

So why should Liberians trust the same people who had betrayed their confidence for many years and led them down a path of mayhem, using their name for dubious motives on numerous occasions? How certain are the proponents that this time those who leveraged force against unarmed civilians to gain power will not regroup and start another round of insurgency? What are the guarantees that will deter the culture of violence and destruction?

After nearly 14 years of sheer madness which pushed Liberia into an abyss of anarchy that ultimately left the country being dubbed a failed state, governed by a tyrant with a flair for ostentatious grandeurs and driven by greed, a peace accord was signed in Accra, Ghana, on August 18 to end one of Africa’s worst civil conflicts.

Some say it was a watershed moment for Liberians to start picking up the pieces of their shattered lives and move on. But others are more skeptical about that. The skeptics believe the new peace deal is only a respite which will bring a lull in violence until some disgruntled warlord pick up from where the last armed parties were forced to stop holding Liberia hostage.

After all, these observers rightly noted there is no disincentive for making war in Liberia and subjecting its population to mindless killing. In fact there is every reason for anyone who cannot compete in the political arena to use violence to gain power, because no one has ever been brought to justice for armed uprising. Instead, they have always been rewarded.

Putting it starkly differently, it pays to kill Liberians. And those who have perfected that practice have wound up as cabinet ministers, lawmakers or other policymakers. How repulsive! Organizing a rebel movement in Liberia is a profitable enterprise, and a ticket to government positions, which some rebel leaders could not otherwise achieve on their own merits.

By all accounts, the issue of accountability was not seriously factored into the recent Liberian peace process that brought an end to the fight. And for obvious reason, those who employed brute force indiscriminately against innocent people did not want to be accountable for their actions. The question one must ponder is: if accountability is not a factor in regulating one’s behavior, why should one be expected to alter such behavior?

Until we take away the incentives that drive these pillaging terrorists and their benefactors who prey upon innocent civilians, the cycle of violence will continue. And unless we as a people begin to take human rights seriously not only when it’s politically expedient, but as a core component of good governance we will not be able to arrest the problem. War crimes tribunal is the ONLY appropriate forum for accountability.