Events

The Road to Peace in Liberia: Citizen Views on Transitional Justice

November 10, 2004 // 8:00am9:30am

Tornorlah Varpilah, Transitional Justice Working Group
John Moreira, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research
Moderator: Howard Wolpe, Director of the Africa Program

As Liberia begins to emerge from fourteen years of civil strife, calls for justice for the victims of war crimes are gaining increasing prominence. In this climate, the Africa Program hosted the unveiling of the first-ever nationwide survey on Liberians' attitudes towards how atrocities during this time period should be addressed. The Transitional Justice Working Group, a coalition of Liberian NGOs, conducted the research, with the support of U.S.-based Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Creative Associates, and the backing of USAID's Office of Transitional Initiatives (OTI).

Tornorlah Varpilah began by outlining the challenges that faced the reconstruction effort in Liberia, and the mission of the Transitional Justice Working Group and the twenty-three NGOs that make up its membership. The goal, he said, was to promote accountability so that the "culture of violence can be replaced by a culture of peace" by implementing measures to bring perpetrators to justice, while ensuring that the process for dealing with these crimes had the full support of the Liberian people.

John Moreira presented the survey results, noting that there was a profound sense of optimism that the country was moving in the right direction and that the country was moving towards a long-lasting peace, a sentiment that is especially strong in rural regions. Nonetheless, this sense of progress does not reflect a desire to forget the past; on the contrary, most Liberians would like an inquiry into past atrocities, and would like a written record of the turmoil that had occurred. Furthermore, there was concern over the efficiency of the transitional government, and resentment that the social services being provided to ex-combatants surpassed those available to the general populace.

Opinions were more divided on the specifics of the truth and justice process. While it was accepted that leaders of warring factions should be held accountable for their actions, there was less consensus as to whether rank-and-file militants should be similarly held accountable. Most of those surveyed believed that the accused should be tried in special courts and judged by both foreign and Liberian judges. Liberian respondents also expressed a strong desire to permit ex-combatants to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into their former communities. The survey data suggest broad support for giving ex-combatants the opportunity to publicly confess, and to seek reintegration without fear of retribution. There was also a broad consensus that former dictator and warlord Charles Taylor was guilty of war crimes, but a divergence of opinion as to what punishment he should face if convicted.

These results, according to Varpilah, serve as a reminder that there is a unique opportunity in Liberia, but that it needs support and reinforcement both from the outside, and the investment of local communities. He praised the U.S. initiative to remove Charles Taylor, and emphasized that transitional justice was only the first step in generating a necessary national dialogue about Liberia's future.

In the question and answer session that followed, audience members asked about how the options being considered compared to other transitional justice initiatives, including the Gacaca process in Rwanda, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. The speakers agreed that these experiences offered examples of ways in which transitional initiatives could work, but emphasized that the process would have to be specific to Liberia's experience, while drawing on lessons learned from other nations. While there is no consensus on the logistical and specific elements of this process, all parties agree that encouraging openness and truth-telling is the first step.

Mike Jobbins, Africa Program Assistant ext. 4158
Howard Wolpe, Director

  

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