Why There Must be Accountability in Liberia

By Alphonso W. Nyenuh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 29, 2003

By failing to include provisions that would seek to identify and prosecute those responsible for the most heinous crimes - massacres, rape, torture and other forms of macabre atrocities - the parties to the Liberian Peace Agreement of 18th August 2003 and the mediators and facilitators alike, have failed to put Liberia on the road to sustainable peace, genuine reconciliation and democracy. Their decision to pursue the path of impunity through blanket amnesty for even the most horrific and egregious crimes that have been visited on Liberia for the past 14 years is tragic and stunning, especially when one looks at how impunity in the past has led to more and more violence.

A decision to identify and prosecute those who masterminded and committed the most horrific and callous crimes would have ended the vicious cycle of violence that has engulfed the country by serving as a strong deterrent for future abuses of such nature and enabled the victims of the most horrendous abuses obtain redress. It would have also fostered reconciliation by blunting the urge for revenge and removing the stigma of collective guilt, and reinstate the rule of law and people's faith in society's ability to defend their rights and freedoms.

Article XII, Part Six of the Peace Agreement, titled, "Human Rights", regrettably omits any language that would address past abuses. Instead it restates generally known provisions of international human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and emphasizes human rights education as the panacea to the problem, as if it was the lack of such education that led warring factions to rape, slaughter, loot and plunder the country. While this provision calls for the setting up of an Independent National Human Rights Commission, it precludes the Commission from considering abuses of the past. The Commission's mandate instead, is limited to providing human rights education and working with local and
international human rights groups to monitor human rights abuses of the future.

Article XXXIV of the Agreement, titled, "Amnesty", states: " the NTGL shall give consideration to a recommendation for general amnesty to all persons and parties engaged or involved in military activities during the Liberian civil conflict that is the subject of this Agreement."

These provisions, as well as recent pronouncements by the Chairman of the
incoming National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) Mr. Gyude
Bryant, that his Government favors "general amnesty" for all participants in the Liberian conflict, are troubling pointers to the sad fact that once again Liberia is on the path to entrenching impunity and that the victims of those horrendous abuses - those children whose parents were slaughtered and rendered orphaned, those fathers whose daughters and wives were raped before their very eyes, those people whose pregnant wives or mothers were disemboweled, those victims of the Lutheran Church, Carter Camp, Sinje, Fasama, Zwedru and Gbarnga massacres - will not be able to get justice for those horrendous crimes that they have suffered. And that the perpetrators - those murderers and looters and rapists - will not only be rewarded with government jobs financed by the taxes and resources of the very victims of their abuses, but they will enjoy impunity for those crimes.

This is a recipe for national discord and more violence as it may push victims to seek revenge as a way of exacting justice for themselves, and serve as an incentive for power seekers to take up arms in pursuit of political power, since obtaining power these days is not through the popular mandate of the people but by one's willingness to take up arms and commit atrocities. Additionally, in the absence of individual legal responsibility, collective guilt may creep in. People tend to blame entire ethnic, political, military or other social, parochial groups for
abuses committed by people who look like or are associated with them, when
society fails to pursue individual legal responsibility.

The people of Liberia and the international community must work collectively to reject blanket amnesty for the horrendous crimes of the past and insist on accountability for the most serious crimes, if we do not want to be confronted with another situation of war; for it is only through accountability that we can deter future wars and their associated crimes, and institute the culture of the rule of law.

In the Social Contract, as defined by John Locke, people come together into communities and form governments to which they relinquish some of their absolute rights in exchange for protection against abuse by the powerful, violent and abusive. Consequently, people expect their societies and governments to protect them from abuse and to exact justice on their behalf whenever their rights have been trampled. Where societies fail however, to provide such basic requirement, people are encouraged to seek their own protection (self preservation as the first law of nature), often resorting to illegal, usually chaotic means in doing so. On the other hand, criminals cease the opportunity provided by the failure of societies to call their actions into check, to continue the criminalization of society; hence, more violence, more chaos, and failed states; as Liberia has become over the years.

Recent Liberian history has shown that when crimes are addressed with impunity and those who commit crimes are rewarded with power and wealth; the consequence has almost always been assured - more violence. When we failed to pursue accountability after the first round of war (1989 - 1997) in which entire families were slaughtered, women and little girls were gang raped and used as sex slaves, and people's life's possessions were looted or destroyed, because we were eager to "forgive and forget" or "let bygones be bygones" we were setting the stage for more violence; and more violence we got.

The culture of violence that has been so entrenched in Liberia is largely a consequence of impunity. It was the horrific crimes of the True Whig Party hegemony without redress, that led to the coup of 1980 and the revenge killings that followed. It was the crimes of the Doe Government without redress that provided an alibi for Mr. Taylor's vicious war of the 1990s that led to the murder of over 200,000 people; and it is Taylor's murderous and criminal policy during his presidency that is cited by LURD and MODEL as the justification for their war.

We send two utterly wrong messages when we fail to hold people accountable for their crimes but instead reward them for those actions. (1) By so doing we essentially say to would-be warlords that it is ok for them to take up arms and kill other people and not only are they assured that they will not be held accountable, but they will also be rewarded with jobs and power and wealth. (2) We also say to the victims of crimes that we do not care for their pain and suffering and loss. In both of these messages, we embolden criminals to continue their criminal ways, encourage the victims to seek their own justice (revenge); and demonstrate to the general population that the way to obtaining government jobs or gaining power and wealth is by taking up arms. After all, when was the last time that Liberia had leaders that were freely and popularly elected?

Impunity also encourages the culture of collective guilt. When society fails to identify and hold individuals legally accountable for their actions, the tendency is for victims and others to blame entire ethnic, political, military or other social groups for the actions of some of their members - guilt by association. When elements of the Samuel Doe Government murdered Gio and Mano men, women and children, nothing was done to identify and punish the perpetrators of those abuses. In the absence of such individual responsibility, the collective guilt/responsibility fell on everybody who worked in the Government and the entire Krahn ethnic group, under the notion that the people who killed our brothers and sisters were Krahn people. Hence when the Gios and Manos swelled the ranks of Taylor's NPFL, one of their prime objectives was to kill ethnic Krahns, and kill the Krahns they did; whether or not those Krahns they
killed had anything to do with the Doe Government and its crimes.


Laws are made and legal institutions established to ensure that people's rights are safeguarded, and where they are violated, to exact the necessary punishment to ensure their sanctity. Laws are supposed to help us guide against the dominance of the weak by the strong, the poor by the rich and the powerless by the powerful. But when people who step on other people's rights do not only go free but are rewarded for doing so, then the rule of law is defeated and society is governed by the rule of men.

As indicated earlier, the Peace Agreement of 18th August 2003 authorizes the Transitional Government to "give consideration to a recommendation for general amnesty to all persons and parties engaged or involved in military activities during the Liberian civil conflict that is the subject of this Agreement."

But is this Transitional Government clothed with the authority and the moral standing to grant amnesty for the horrific abuses of the war on behalf of the Liberian people? The answer is a resounding NO. Firstly, this is a Government comprised largely of those who waged the war and actually murdered, raped, tortured and looted the country down. By authorizing the government that they formed and that they numerically dominate, to decide on amnesty for them, is simply a politically correct way of granting themselves immunity for their horrific crimes.

Secondly, the NTGL does not have the political mandate and moral standing to grant amnesties for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was not elected by the people; but imposed by special circumstances; as such, it does not have the people's mandate to extend forgiveness on their behalf. Additionally, war crimes and crimes against humanity are breaches against humanity at large and thus have international jurisdiction. As such, decisions by nations not to prosecute them must be broad-based if they should not be challenged and accepted by the international community; not made by the perpetrators to grant themselves immunity from prosecution.

As such, any decision under this transitional government to grant amnesty must be made through a national referendum or the question of amnesty must be postponed for an elected government, at which time the government would have the popular mandate of the people and would carry the clout of speaking for the people.

While it is commendable that the Agreement provides for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no genuine reconciliation can be achieved without justice. Though a Truth and Reconciliation Commission may help to heal the psychological wounds of society by addressing the general questions of why wars were waged, desecration of religious and traditional places, and other general acts of war, through acts of repentance and restorative justice, etc., justice (punishment for crimes) must be pursued for the most serious crimes such as the planned massacres, rape, torture and other war crimes and crimes against humanity; for it is only through this that we can deter future wars and their associated crimes, remove the urge for vengeance killings, ensure individual responsibility over collective guilt, and build a peaceful Liberia adherent to the rule of law.

About the author: Mr. Alphonso W. Nyenuh is a Liberian human rights activist. He worked for the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission for close to seven years where he investigated and reported on human rights abuses. He also worked for Forefront, a network of leading grassroots human rights and social justice activists around the world. Currently, he is the information spokesperson of the Liberia Consultative Group, an organization of Liberian professionals and activists in exile in the US. He can be contacted at: anyenuh@hotmail.com